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Pitching to the Extremes: Why is Gerrit Cole’s effectiveness so polarized?

For one of the best pitchers in baseball, he sure has his fair share of stinkers.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

For those of you hoping I’m going to bash Gerrit Cole in the following paragraphs, you’re probably in the wrong place. Do I recognize that he’s had his fair share of shocking starts? Absolutely. Do I also think he’s the best pitcher in the AL on his day and worth every last cent of his contract? Also yes.

What I’m interested in today is seeing what went wrong in that start against the Twins, finding out what he changed to make him so effective against the Rays in his next start, and determining which of these adjustments he can carry forward to facilitate success in the future. First things first, that requires us to relive those dreadful moments from that night in Minnesota. That’s right, we’re going to watch a replay of all five home runs he surrendered. I know this might be painful, but think of it like ripping off a Band-Aid — it promotes healing. I promise, we’ll make it through together.

We start things off with Luis Arraez’s leadoff home run:

After seeing Arraez struggle to catch up with two fastballs in the zone, I really have to question the pitch selection on 2-2. Cole struggles with locating his changeup down and away to lefties, too often yanking them up and into the zone for a disproportionate amount of home runs. They caution against getting beat on your fifth-best pitch and that’s exactly what happened here — a mediocre pitch to begin with, exacerbated by poor situational pitch selection and poor execution.

Next, he have Byron Buxton’s solo blast on Cole’s very next offering:

That’s a cookie to one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, one who punishes breaking balls no less. It’s also middle-middle just like the changeup to Arraez.

Two pitches later, he gave up this blast to Carlos Correa:

Again, a breaking ball middle-middle to an exceptional hitter.

Cole did manage to escape the first inning, firing three straight strikeouts, but it was only delaying the inevitable. In the second, after allowing a pair to reach to bring Buxton back to the plate, the Twins’ center fielder delivered the coup de grâce to Cole by blasting a three-run shot to seemingly erase the hard work the Yankees offense had done to dig themselves out of the first hole their ace put them in.

What’s that? Another middle-middle cutter you say? Apparently, Cole hadn’t learned his lesson from the first time facing Buxton, and grooved him an even tastier pitch to hit for his second home run of the night. The ace was in complete disarray at this point of his outing, unsure which if any of his pitches he could throw without getting crushed. It was pretty clear to Buxton that he wouldn’t receive a fastball in the plate appearance, so he simply waited for Cole to miss in the zone with a breaker, and that’s just what happened.

Finally, we have Trevor Larnach’s solo shot with one out in the third:

This one’s pretty straightforward. After two straight misses setting up a 2-1 count, Larnach is selling out for a fastball, and Cole obliges. Unfortunately — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — it’s right down the middle.

How do we even evaluate this mess — five home runs, seven runs total in just 2.1 innings? Fortunately, Cole provided us just the roadmap needed to navigate his outing. In his postgame interview, he narrowed down his ineffectiveness to a handful of culprits. He obviously notes that way too many pitches found the heart of the plate, but he also felt he didn’t throw enough fastballs inside and couldn’t execute the shape he wanted on his slider and cutter.

Well, it looks like Cole took his own advice in his subsequent start against the Rays. He bumped his four-seam usage right back to around his season average after featuring it only 30 percent of the time against the Twins. He also almost completely scrapped the cutter, throwing only three of them while making up the difference with fastballs and curveballs. The result: six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts.

On one hand, it’s encouraging to see Cole make game-to-game adjustments and have those adjustments bear fruit. On the other, it’s still alarming that he seemingly has these type of blowup outings lying dormant within him, waiting to bust out at an unexpected moment. Invariably this begs the question: How can a pitcher this good have outings this terrible?

I think the two things to zero in on are repertoire and his slider and cutter. If we are to consider his cutter and slider the same pitch thrown with different velocities (and there is a case to be made there), that makes Cole essentially a two-pitch pitcher. Granted, he gets away with that because the two pitches he throws are in the 99th percentile of their respective pitch class.

That being said, if on a given night, one of those two pitches is unusable — as appeared to be the case with his fastball against the Twins — Cole becomes eminently predictable and all the hitter has to do is zero in on a location and wait for their pitch. I cannot overstate how important the fastball is to the entire equation. When he’s throwing it 40-50 percent of the time, the hitter has to respect it and almost cheat to it. This in turn amplifies the effectiveness of his breaking pitches, which is so important for the nights that maybe he doesn’t have his A-plus breaker.

As for the slider and cutter, from a zoomed out perspective, they’re two of the best versions of slider and cutter in the game, mostly because the vast majority he throws are expertly executed and with elite pitch characteristics. However, when he loses the feel for them, nights like the one in Minnesota happen.

Cole throws an old-school bullet-spin slider and cutter instead of the sweeper a lot of his teammates are throwing. When your delivery and/or release gets out of whack with that type of slider/cutter, there’s much less room for error. Put another way, a poorly executed sweeper is still not the easiest thing in the world to hit, but a poorly executed Cole slider is a middle-middle cement mixer.

That’s exactly what we saw against the Twins. Too many of his sliders backed up over the middle of the plate. The cutter was even worse. He was working underneath the cutter all game instead of staying behind the ball and really finishing the pitch. The result is a cutter that was running armside, which just makes it a batting practice fastball.

So where does that leave us? Should Cole ditch the cutter altogether? That’s probably not the solution given the success he’s had with it in every other outing. Should he scrap his current slider and jump on the sweeper bandwagon? Again, I don’t think that’s a good idea, considering the track record of success with the pitch and the fact that I believe his current slider is actually a better pairing off his four-seamer. This is because of the later, sharper break relative to a sweeper that allows the pitch to tunnel with the heater for longer to the plate. It may be unsatisfactory to some, but the only conclusion I can draw is that Cole will be fine.

And yet, at the end of all this, one can still be left feeling unfulfilled with Cole and worried about when the next nightmare start might happen. I possess neither the time nor tools to investigate whether Cole does indeed suffer more of these blowout outings than other “ace” pitchers of this era. So, I’ll just leave you with my personal take on matters.

I feel that Cole’s record-breaking contract and the stratospheric expectations that come with such an outlay leaves Yankees fans with a heightened sensitivity towards the starts when he gets shelled. This hypersensitivity towards failure gives even greater salience to the memory of those starts so that it seems like said starts happen with greater frequency and greater intensity. And none of this is to provide excuses for Cole — when you are paid like the best pitcher in baseball, you deserve to be scrutinized like the best pitcher in baseball. I just ask that people understand that, unlike Gerrit Cole’s starts, there exists much middle ground in how to evaluate the pitcher, one does not need to live at the extremes.