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How Gerrit Cole varies his approach against his former team

Cole has made three starts against the Houston Astros as a Yankee, with largely good results.

Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

Pitching against one’s former team has to be difficult — there are emotions involved with facing players you once shared a clubhouse with, and theoretically, the coaching staff should have more of a book on how you approach hitters and your weaknesses than any other.

Gerrit Cole has started three games against the Houston Astros since he departed them to join the Yankees. Interestingly, he’s approached them a bit differently each time. Let’s go through the nuances of his approach, to see how changes things up against a team as familiar as his former employer.

May 6, 2021

The Astros and the Yankees never faced off in the shortened 2020 season, so this was Cole’s first crack at Houston. He did well but wasn’t completely dominant, throwing seven innings with four strikeouts and two earned runs.

Cole racked up half of his strikeout total within the first four batters of the game. He ended the first by getting Alex Bregman looking at a fastball, then started the second by inducing Yordan Alvarez to swing at ball. Both came on fastballs. However, the game featured one of the lowest strikeout percentages of Cole’s season. For whatever reason, his strikeout stuff wasn’t there that day, and pitching to contact was the way to get outs.

Cole was not reliant on his blazing fastball throughout this start. According to FanGraphs, he threw his slider just over 18% of the time, his curveball 19%, and the changeup 13%. These days, Cole doesn’t throw his curveball or changeup nearly that often.

July 10, 2021

I’m guessing you still remember this game. Cole entered the unfriendly confines of Minute Maid Park and absolutely dominated, throwing a complete game shut out with 12 strikeouts. The three hits he allowed were all singles. There simply aren’t many games like this one anymore.

This bout of pure dominance suggests a more aggressive approach by Cole than in his previous start. He practically dared the Astros to hit his fastball by throwing it in the zone — but it just kept getting past them. Waiting to see if he might miss wasn’t an effective approach either — Cole walked only two batters. His ability to dot the corner of the zone with filthy stuff was on display. With his fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup usage in line with his season averages, he quite apparently had every single pitch working exactly the way he wanted them to.

June 25, 2022

That brings us to Cole’s start last weekend. His performance was overshadowed by the offense being no-hit, but he deserved a win, throwing seven innings, striking out eight, walking two, and allowing only one run on a solo home run to J.J. Matijevic (not that he’s someone you should be giving up home runs to).

For this game, the four-seam fastball was the star of the show. 56.6% of the pitches he threw were fastballs, the second-highest mark of his season. The use of his slider was also down from his average this season, while the curveball made more appearances than usual. With his fastball sitting about 100 mph for the game, Cole turned to throwing it just out of the zone, complemented with sliders almost in the dirt, to get the Astros to swing and miss and collect many of his strikeouts for the day.

It was a 99-mph fastball, though, that Matijevic was able to turn around for a deep home run to right. It was squarely in the zone, suggesting his earlier tactic of leaving it outside the zone was the right call.

Interestingly, this game featured the second-highest hard hit percentage yielded by Cole of his starts this season — exactly 50% of the batted balls against him were hard hit, according to FanGraphs. His FIP for the game was 3.55, suggesting he might have been fortunate to end the game with only one earned run allowed. Either way, the strategy he employed looked like it was the optimal one for dealing with the loaded Astro lineup.