The reputation that earned Gerrit Cole his record-breaking contract with the Yankees is well-known — a pitcher with ridiculous strikeout stuff who can throw more than 200 innings per season. Despite ups and some well-publicized downs, that reputation is still intact. One of the changes that may have resulted in some of the rare struggles, however, is the loss of his curveball as not only a strikeout pitch, but even a serviceable one.
From the start of the 2022 season through his June 3rd start, the numbers against Cole’s curveball are unsightly. According to Baseball Savant, opposing batters are hitting .400 against it, slugging .533, and only whiffing on it 28.1 percent of the time. To compare, batters are averaging .204, slugging .389, and whiffing on 34.1 percent of his fastballs.
This is a continuation of a trend. Last season, batters hit .299 against the curve; in 2020, it was only .214. In fact, in Cole’s first few seasons in the league, he didn’t have a good curve at all — perhaps a byproduct of Pittsburgh’s pitching philosophy at the time, which focused more on sinkers and two-seamers. In 2017, the first year the Run Value stat is available for, his curveball had a measure of 6. (Compare that to the -22 mark his fastball had in 2018!) It also had a positive rating (meaning it was not good) in 2018 with the Houston Astros, before becoming a plus pitch for him in his near-Cy Young season of 2019.
To visualize, here’s the expected batting average off Cole’s curveball per season:
A huge spike in 2021 immediately lights up a neon sign that says “sticky stuff crackdown.” As has been discussed, Cole did have a noticeable drop in the RPM of his pitches following the ban last year. However, those numbers did eventually stabilize, and are still above league average across the board. In fact, the RPM of Cole’s curveball so far this year is just about the same as it was in 2020, when it had a run value of -1. Baseball Savant has him in the 89th percentile for curveball spin in 2022.
So what is the issue now? Cole definitely appears to be losing faith in the pitch — he’s using it the least amount of any in his arsenal, to the point where it seems like he might scrap it altogether.
His ability to locate the pitch certainly appears to be a major factor right now. Look at the heat map of where he’s thrown it — a lot down, as you would expect, but also many that are up and in the middle of the plate, where a curveball is basically begging to get crushed.
A curve there leads to moments like this:
The location heat map of Cole’s curveball from 2021 shows similar problems with leaving the ball up. In 2020, however, he was much more successful at keeping the ball low and out of the strike zone, where it can do much less harm.
This suggests to me that the issue involves mechanics or changed grip that Cole isn’t quite comfortable with, rather than much of anything related to sticky stuff. And while Matt Blake is getting a lot of well-deserved kudos on the state of the New York starting rotation, evidently this is a pitch that he hasn’t yet been able to fix for the ace.
Fortunately, the loss of this one pitch is far from devastating for Cole, as it would be if he had a limited repertoire to start. This season, he’s starting throwing a cutter that’s been quite effective to pair with his deadly fastball and slider. If he can’t get the curve right, it’s better that he keep minimizing its usage. He has plenty of ways to get batters out without it.