Gerrit Cole gets the ball tonight against the Blue Jays, in the second game of the Second Biggest Series of the Year. He’s also lined up to start a potential Wild Card game on extra rest, and that game could very well see the Yankees taking on these same Blue Jays. Being in the same division, and especially last year where the semi-bubble prevented inter-division games, the Jays have seen Cole a lot, and have not done well against him.
As a Yankee, Cole’s posted a 3.01 ERA overall, but has run a 2.19 figure specifically against the Blue Jays. Despite running a higher-than-normal FIP in his six starts, he’s continually been able to suppress runs when facing one of the best offenses in the game, and I wanted to see what, if anything, he was doing different.
What really jumps out is Cole’s decline in strikeout rate relative to his baseline. Since coming to New York, he’s struck out 33.5 percent of hitters he’s faced, and against the Jays, that number drops all the way down to 26.1 percent. The Jays don’t strike out that much, and if you look at the other clubs that have held Cole below a 30 percent K rate, it’s the Astros and the Royals, two teams that prioritize reducing strikeouts, as well as the White Sox, who are about the league median in strikeout rate.
Obviously, Cole’s a guy that works up in the zone with the fastball, then down and away with the slider, dropping curves and changes in as well. This is a strikeout-heavy approach to pitching — keep the ball up above the swing plane, then make guys fish for bad pitches late in the count. Against the Jays, a team that doesn’t strike out a lot, his pitch usage doesn’t really change:
My next thought was, does Cole change his sequencing? The Blue Jays aren’t just a low strikeout team, they’re an incredibly aggressive team early in the count. They come up to the plate ready to swing, hunting the first good pitch they see — in fact, they swing at 20.3 percent of “early count” pitches, pitches in 0-0, 1-0 and 0-1 counts, which is the third-highest rate in baseball, and they crush fastballs, to the tune of a .430 wOBA that tops the game. Throwing fastballs early in the count is asking for trouble with this lineup.
And yet, Cole throws his fastball early to the Jays as often as he does any other opponent — 51 percent overall, 52 percent to Toronto. He throws them in the zone at the same rate too — 53 to 52 percent, respectively. The Jays don’t really hit Cole any harder, or induce more ground balls, they just...don’t reach base despite putting more balls in play than most teams against the Yankee ace.
Even those balls in play aren’t radically different. You might think that the way to engineer success against the Jays is keep the ball on the ground, but Cole’s groundball rate is literally one point higher against Toronto than his average. So again, there’s really nothing there.
It’s not always a satisfying conclusion to say “well, this guy doesn’t do anything different”. Cole and the Yankees would develop specific plans to approach a hitter in one way or another, but on the aggregate, he attacks the Jays the same way he does every other team. In a way, that probably makes his job easier as a pitcher, because he’s not overthinking any one start over the other.
Ken Singleton is fond of saying that “some guys just throw your speed”, meaning, sometimes you just hit well against a pitcher, and there may not be rhyme or reason why that success occurs, it just does. Even though Cole doesn’t really take advantage of the Blue Jays’ aggressiveness, it’s clear that over the last two seasons, he doesn’t throw their speed.