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How Gerrit Cole’s mechanics have changed during a decade of dominance

The ace notched his first strikeout almost 10 years ago — aside from the repertoire, what else has changed for Cole?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has reached 2,000 strikeouts, it’s a good occasion to go back and look at where it all started. It’s also an opportune time to reflect because Cole celebrates 10 years of service time once June 12th rolls around. Fewer than 10 percent of all MLB players last a decade in the big leagues (former Yankees Matt Carpenter and Nathan Eovaldi also recently cracked 10 years). It took Cole a few years and a fresh new start away from Pittsburgh to finally blossom into the kind of ace who very well might make the Hall of Fame one day.

Cole ate up 200 innings in five separate seasons, including three in a row from 2017-19. He narrowly missed the 200 mark in 2021, but reached it again in 2022. One of the most important aspects of being an ace is going deep into games, and Cole has done so from the very beginning. He only started 38 minor league games before his call-up, and he established himself as a fixture in the Pirates rotation immediately.

Cole faced off against the San Francisco Giants on June 12, 2013, in the midst of their mini-dynasty in which they won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. The 22-year-old pitched well, working into the seventh inning, and got the win in his first career start.

The former No. 1 overall pick struck out the first batter of the game, Gregor Blanco, for his first career punchout. Cole’s final line came out to 6.1 innings, seven hits, and two earned runs. Curiously, Cole would only fan one other hitter for just two total on the night.

This game occurred in the (relative) dark ages for more than one reason: no Statcast and no designated hitter, so Cole got a chance to help himself out at the plate. He lined a two-run single in his first big league at-bat, showing poise at the plate as well as on the mound. Remarkably, Cole didn’t have a hit in his minor league career, and nary a hit in college at UCLA either.

Cole is always a quality interview (well, most of the time), and as a rookie he was no different. After his pair of RBIs, he realized the absurdity of the situation, saying “I got totally lucky there. That’s my first hit since high school. It’s been a long time and I wasn’t expecting it.”

Let’s now investigate the specific mechanical differences between rookie Cole and Yankees Cole. His first and 2,000th strikeout were both on remarkably similar pitches, straight gas up in the zone: 99 mph for the first, 98 for the 2,000th. Despite his superhuman workload for today’s era, he hasn’t lost his electric fastball.

Mechanically, Cole has made some significant tweaks since his rookie year. This is the pitch he struck out Blanco with. The young Cole’s front hip is fully closed off, and it must rotate open before he pushes off the rubber. This decreases torque, instead replacing it with rotation. If the hips over-rotate, they can’t fire before the shoulders. That hip-shoulder separation is integral to both command and torque. Rotating means you risk spraying the ball to the glove side.

For comparison’s sake, former top Yankees prospect Deivi García in particular has run into command problems because of his extremely rotational delivery, even more so than Cole’s rookie mechanics. Note the similar hip position at the balance point.

Now for Cole’s balance point on number 2,000. Immediately noticeable is his more neutral position — his hips don’t cross over and he’s on time coming out of his leg kick. The completely squared hips mean the force his back leg generates downhill is going straight towards home plate, with no risk of spraying the heater.

Once Cole gets to release the crucial difference in his delivery is clear — as a rookie, his shoulders have much more ground to cover during the push-off. Because of that, his arm is late coming around to release. Notice he stands pretty much straight up as he releases, and he ends up leaving it a bit lower than intended.

On the milestone strikeout this week, Cole’s balance is shifted further forward at release, giving him the ability to get extended out above his front leg. He’s both further down the mound and generating more hip-shoulder separation, which pays off at the balanced released point. This time, the pitch was located as intended.

From the jump, it was clear Cole was different from most rookies. Two thousand strikeouts, 1,717 innings, and five All-Star selections later, he’s in the midst of compiling a Hall of Fame-caliber body of work. The only achievement missing? A World Series ring.