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The keys for Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the ALDS

How the Yankees can maximize Gerrit Cole against the Guardians.

Boston Red Sox v. New York Yankees Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The first three starting pitching matchups of the ALDS are set, with Gerrit Cole facing Cal Quantrill in Game 1, Nestor Cortes facing Shane Bieber in Game 2, and Luis Severino facing Triston McKenzie in Game 3. Each of the pairings is full of intrigue, and I tried my hand at game-planning for the Cleveland trio yesterday. Today, I’d like to zoom in on one man: Gerrit Cole.

The Yankees ace has had an up and down season for a man of his ability — one that ninety percent of starters would be happy with. However, Cole is not 90 percent of starters, so his 3.50 ERA (111 ERA+), 3.47 FIP, 257 strikeouts and 3.3 fWAR in 200.2 innings left a lot to be desired. When you’re billed as one of if not the best starting pitcher in baseball, sure, leading the league with 257 strikeouts is nice, but serving up more home runs than anyone (33), finishing 33rd on the fWAR pitching leaderboard, and performing just 11 percent better than league average at run suppression doesn’t cut it.

As we’ve documented on the site, Cole’s biggest issue is road pizza, or having blowup outings unbecoming of an ace. We’ve seen multiple times how Cole has been unable to turn the page on a bad outcome or an inconvenience, which leads him to try to bully his way out of frames rather than execute his pitches. When you’re facing big league opposition, this mindset leads to a big inning (usually in the form of multiple home runs or home runs with men on). His failure to make that mid-inning adjustment is in a way a form of self-destruction, torpedoing what is often a brilliant outing up to the point where it falls apart.

Thankfully for Cole, he can erase all of the negatives of his regular season by performing like the white whale Brian Cashman just had to have following the 2019 season. Let’s not forget that he is still an ace pitcher, one of the best in the league when he’s executing. He showed this in two recent starts against the Guardians, and he can lean on the experience of those outings to inform how he pitches tonight.

Of course, we have to start with Cole’s 13 strikeout gem in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series.

He carved his way through the Cleveland lineup that night, inducing 23 whiffs and looking like every bit the pitcher the Yankees signed for these big occasions. There’s the six expected strikeouts on the four-seamer, but what caught my eye was the four punchouts on the knuckle-curve. It’s a pitch he’s made a conscious effort to feature more in recent weeks, so it will be interesting to see how much of a weapon it turns out to be tonight.

Cole pitched twice against the Guardians last season, with polar opposite results. The first game was almost a carbon copy of his AL Wild Card Game start — seven innings giving up a run on three hits against 11 strikeouts. The latter start was while Cole attempted to pitch on an injured hamstring at the end of the season. That went about as well as expected — 5.2 innings giving up seven runs on 10 hits.

More recently, Cole torched the Guardians for 6.2 scoreless innings, allowing four hits and a walk against 9 strikeouts on April 24th.

Only one knuckle-curve this time, with most of the punchouts coming on the four-seamer. This is a different Guardians squad than the one he whiffed into oblivion two years ago — they have the lowest whiff rate on swings of any of the eight teams in the playoffs. That said, they also own the second-highest chase rate of the teams still playing baseball, so it seems like the knuckle-curve buried below the zone would be the perfect pitch — though it does appear that role was taken by sliders/cutters out of the zone gloveside.

That brings us to Cole’s most recent start against the Guardians on July 2nd when he gave up two runs on back-to-back solo home runs by Josh Naylor and Franmil Reyes to lead off the second inning. Here is the Naylor home run:

Earlier this season, I wrote about Cole incorporating the cutter into his repertoire. If you’ll remember, this early-July start came shortly after that five home run horror outing in Minnesota, where much of his trouble stemmed from the slider and cutter backing up, with the latter pitch even running armside at times.

And here is the Reyes home run:

Just your classic case of turning the hitter loose 3-0. There’s really no legislating for the home run surrendered to Reyes other than not throwing three straight balls to open an at-bat. Reyes got the exact pitch he was looking for given the situation and did with it what a major league slugger is supposed to do.

So actually there is a lot to be encouraged by Cole’s most recent start against the Guardians. Cole has almost entirely scrapped the cutter, so we don’t have to worry about him throwing backup hangers to Naylor or anyone else. And as for the Reyes home run, it’s a bit anomalous to serve up a 3-0 blast given how frequently Cole gets ahead in counts, and I’m confident Cole will be slightly more cautious than grooving a fastball middle-middle should he find himself behind 3-0. Take away those two home runs and Cole’s line for the night looks much closer to the previous two starts against Cleveland: six scoreless with one hit, three walks, and six strikeouts.

Putting this all together, Cole has a track record of success against the Guardians that he can lean on, and at the very least this can lend a positive mindset as he takes the mound. He’s facing a team that will chase, won’t swing at the first pitch, and won’t whiff, instead aiming to put the ball in play as much as possible. I feel this combined approach plays right into Cole’s hands. He can get ahead in the count with the fastball early and then use the opposition’s aggression against them, feeding a steady diet of breaking pitches out of the zone to induce the chase. If they whiff, great. If they make contact, it’s likely to be the type of contact that favors the pitcher and defense. It sounds reductive, but if Cole executes his pitches against this Guardians offense, he has every chance of winning the game.