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Subtle signs from Gerrit Cole’s first two starts

The Yankees’ ace has made a few adjustments in a small sample this season.

Toronto Blue Jays v. New York Yankees Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

One of the biggest battles that any sort of baseball analysis faces at this point in the season is that it’s simply very difficult to draw certain conclusions and discern which trends will hold and which will fade. Baseball is a sport played over a 162-game season, and it takes a while for things to settle.

That said, that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn or pick up anything a week into the season. Steven Kwan was never going to sustain his early numbers, for example, but his ability to repress strikeouts and his knowledge of the strike zone give us a hint that he could succeed in the big leagues.

Likewise, we’re two starts into the season for Gerrit Cole. We have limited data to look at, but we still have some things to talk about with the Yankees ace.

When discussing a pitcher of Cole’s caliber, the final results of a couple of starts won’t affect the way you view him, barring some extreme underlying numbers. Cole has yielded six runs in 9.2 innings across his first two appearances, but two iffy outings aren’t something to freak out about. In his first start, Cole alluded to the breakup in his usual routine because the game’s start was pushed back a few minutes. After a rocky first inning, the right-hander cruised through the Red Sox lineup and left the game having looked sharp outside of the initial struggles, despite his middling overall line.

In his second game, he fell victim to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on a night when virtually any pitcher in the world would. Cole probably wishes he had back the hanger he slung to Vlad for his first homer back, but there was nothing Cole could do about the inside-corner heater Guerrero Jr. crushed for his second homer. In all, there’s just not much to take away from the pure results of Cole’s first starts.

We can try, however, to dig deeper, to see if Cole has done anything noteworthy so far. In 2021, Cole had a whiff rate of 27.1 in his fastball. That four-seamer, deployed up in the zone has been deadly for a few years. But for some reason, Cole has shied away from that tactic in each of his first two starts.

Take a look at Cole’s fastball location in 2021:

Now through his first two starts in 2022:

Cole is consistently keeping the fastball down in the zone. He’s done so with such frequency that he seems to be doing so with intent. We’ve seen very different returns in each game with this “new” approach.

Against the Red Sox, Cole threw his fastball 28 times and didn’t earn a single whiff on the pitch. Because he is Gerrit Cole, he still got 11 whiffs on his secondary pitches, but such a drastic result with the heater is just unheard of for him.

Against the Blue Jays, things went much better. Cole still kept his fastball mostly down in the zone, but the results were there. The Yankee ace got 11 called strikes and another four whiffs on 15 swings off his four-seamer. Overall, Cole earned 17 whiffs on 40 swings, good for a 43 percent whiff rate which is outstanding.

I find it difficult to believe that Cole simply won’t throw his fastball up in the zone anymore, especially when he’s been so successful doing so. Perhaps Cole decided to try a new tactic in these first games, to see if he could surprise hitters with his stellar heater at the knees.

We should keep an eye on Cole’s fastball location going forward. It could very well be that reverts to his old approach, but if nothing else, it’s important to know that Cole was successful with his fastball exclusively down in the zone against the powerful Blue Jays lineup. If Cole finds confidence deploying his fastball at very different eye levels, he could find a subtle new weapon with which to counter opposing hitters.