Last year, Esteban Rivera introduced the “At-Bat of the Week” column, a pitch-by-pitch breakdown of an individual plate appearance every week that he recently revisited. To this point, the AB of the Week has typically been about a Yankees. This season, I’m looking forward to introducing its pitching-side companion, Sequence of the Week, in which we’ll break down one (or multiple!) plate appearances from the perspective of the Yankees pitcher.
There isn’t a lot to talk about at this point in the offseason, so I figured we could use this opportunity to make an example out of Gerrit Cole, and revisit just one moment that highlights what makes him so special. It’s marvelous how much you can take away from a single sequence, sometimes.
Let’s jump to the seventh inning in Seattle on August 9th, where Cole is trying to wrap up the final frame of a masterful performance in what ultimately finished as a painfully memorable 13-inning, 1-0 loss.
Jake Lamb had seen Cole twice already that afternoon without success. But that third time up typically represents a big chance for the hitter. Lamb isn’t very good, but even the worst big league hitter can make an adjustment if they get the chance to see a pitcher for a third time. Cole isn’t like most pitchers, though. He had been feeding Lamb nothing but four-seamers with a dash of knucklecurve all afternoon, and after ending his previous time up by freezing him with a fastball down the middle, Cole stayed aggressive, pumping an easy first-pitch strike past Lamb, who had taken the first pitch in both of his previous times at the plate.
One of the reasons most pitchers can’t go as deep into the game as Cole is that unless you’re Jacob deGrom or Carlos Rodón, you need an unusually deep bag of tricks to be able to fool a hitter three times in one game. Cole’s arsenal is good enough to get a hitter out twice before he even needs his best secondary pitch, having thrown Lamb six fastballs and three curveballs to that point. Unlike most, he’s still throwing upper-nineties in the seventh inning, and can get away with catching a lot of plate on a first-pitch fastball.
0-1 count. Cole throws left-handed hitters a roughly even mix of curveballs, changeups, and sliders, and having not yet shown the hitter the latter two, there probably isn’t a single world in which Lamb is able to read this expertly-placed backdoor slider well enough to do any damage.
Now the count is 0-2, but the AB isn’t over yet. Lamb has relatively good plate discipline, and at 101 pitches, Cole is starting to tire. With fatigue setting in, he over-rotates on an attempt at an elevated fastball and yanks it far inside towards Lamb’s hands. Not necessarily a good pitch, but also not the worst miss in the world with regards to controlling the strike zone. Anyway, 1-2 count:
That makes seven fastballs out of 10 pitches to Lamb on the day. Cole is over the century mark, and he just tried to get Lamb out with an elevated fastball. In a word: Cole and Jose Trevino had been treating Lamb like he couldn’t beat the fastball all day. All signs pointed towards an attempt to end the at bat in expedited fashion with another fastball. The signs, however, were wrong!
Credit where it’s due: That is a fantastic take from Lamb on an excellent changeup. Cole’s cambio is his least dangerous pitch in terms of raw movement and pure swing-and-miss, and it doesn’t have a ton of separation from his fastball, but this is a perfect example of why it’s still a weapon. It doesn’t need bugs bunny movement or a 15 mph velo separation when you can sequence and locate it as well as Cole does.
As if to tip his cap and say “okay, I can’t trick you, but you still can’t beat me head-on,” Cole then returns to the elevated fastball, and this time, despite being over 100 pitches deep, he has the strength and stamina to get his mechanics synced up to zip a 97-mph dart to a near-perfect spot up and just out of the zone.
Huh. That’s two straight excellent pitches just out of the zone that Lamb has managed to spit on. Having also struck out looking in his previous AB, Cole and Trevino could see clearly that Lamb wasn’t going to expand his zone, even with two strikes. The evidence indicated that Lamb was perhaps defending against a fastball in the zone and auto-take anything that didn’t register as a fastball. The solution? Throw a nasty curveball right down the middle that freezes the hitter the moment they recognize the characteristic “hop” out of the hand.
No arguments from Lamb. That, folks, is how you retire a hitter three times in one game. All you need to do is throw 97 mph on pitch 104 while perfectly spotting three secondary pitches, two of which have heavy movement. Easy as pie.
There you have a slice of Gerrit Cole’s brilliance, all in one sequence. As the 2023 season gets underway, I’m looking forward to bringing you more glimpses of excellence from the Yankees pitching staff all summer long. For good measure, let’s wrap with how Cole finished off that outing against Eugenio Suárez, who made things a bit less interesting to Lamb.
To many more such outings in 2023!