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Yankees Sequence of the Week: Gerrit Cole pointedly retires José Caballero (6/19)

Breaking down Cole’s bizarre showdown with the Seattle infielder earlier this week.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of the reasons I find it hard to not like Gerrit Cole is that his utter lack of sauce, as Bradford William Davis so succinctly put it, is completely in earnest. The man loves bone marrow! Who can forget the sheer deer-in-the-headlights expression we’d all probably make if we were directly confronted about cheating (via sticky-stuff) as he was. Cole being Cole is simply a hilarious presence. Smack talking has taken many forms over many centuries, but it’s been four days and I’m still not sure what, exactly, dear Gerrit thought this was going to look like as he walked back into the dugout after retiring the side in the seventh inning of the Yankees 3-1 win over the Mariners on Tuesday.

Surely you’re asking: How did this come to be? Let’s start with the first pitch curveball that Cole threw to José Caballero to open their face-off with two outs in the seventh inning.

In just one pitch (and not even a well-executed one) we see some of the elements that make Cole one of the game’s best. As Alex Eisert wrote about here just yesterday, Cole has pared down his arsenal in recent weeks to almost solely his fastball and slider, his two best pitches. However, this is the third time he’s seen Caballero that night, and of the 11 pitches he threw to him over his first two times up, seven were fastballs and four were sliders. Cole’s knucklecurve isn’t as consistent as his slider, but it’s still an above-average pitch, and the fact that Cole can get by throwing it just three times all night and wait to pull it more or less out of nowhere earns him a slight buckle of Caballero’s knees. It’s in an unhittable spot, and because it breaks 50+ inches downward at 84 mph, even though he misses high, the pitch looks good enough to draw a generous strike call. Most pitchers couldn’t do something like that on purpose, and for Cole, it’s an afterthought.

A fair bit of time elapsed between the first and the second pitch here. Caballero has made a bit of a name for himself by way of timeout manipulation. Here, he employs the same tactic as he did against Lucas Giolito the week prior, waiting for the pitcher to set up for an 0-1 pitch before calling a timeout and taking nearly a full minute to get back in the box. This, I imagine, would explain why you see a slightly agitated Cole reach back and fire a 98.8 mph fastball right down the middle, his fastest pitch of the night to that point.

Caballero has outstanding bat-to-ball skills, and it’s not high enough in the zone to get a whiff, but he also sure as sugar isn’t getting the barrel out in front of the plate in anywhere near enough time to do damage with it, making poor, late contact.

In the clip linked to above, a member of Seattle’s announcing crew comments “in the old days, this would get one in your ear.” Now that he has an 0-2 count, Cole very thankfully decides to not do that and give us something much funnier instead:

It gets a little funnier each time I watch it. Caballero’s flinch gives what I can only describe as the Josh Hart expression. And even though it’s an 0-2 count with two outs and the bases empty — you couldn’t ask for a more perfect situation for a waste pitch — it still takes guts and a little bit of hubris to give away a free ball in a game that’s not by any means over! When Cole gets rolling, there’s hardly a hitter in the world that can stop him, and he knows it. A confident Cole works at a pace hitters simply can’t keep up with, even when he misses. With the count now 1-2, he drops a slider well outside that Caballero, who had just a 15 percent career strikeout rate in the minors, isn’t tempted by. He then misses again, slightly overthrowing a fastball (that is, over-rotating his upper half before release, making for a “late” release point) that wound up being his fastest of the night at 99.1 mph.

Full count, high tension. Here’s the thing: by now, Cole has thrown Caballero 10 non-backstop fastballs, and not at any point has Caballero indicated that he was going to catch up to it. I watched the video, he was late on virtually every swing he took. Cole is obviously tiring — he’s on the doorstep of 100 pitches, and he’s missed some spots with mechanical inconsistencies typically associated with fatigue — but even this late in the game, he’s able to compose himself and put things together for one last (or almost last, as it turned out) bullet of a fastball that a perhaps spooked Caballero never had the slightest chance to hit, in my opinion.

It’s like I said. When Gerrit Cole is rolling, you couldn’t count to five before naming all the pitchers in the game who are more exciting to watch. For Cole, a nasty curveball that most pitchers would die for is a distant third option. In true Verlander form, he’s able to make it through 95 pitches and still reach back to hit velocities that most pitchers would love to see on their very best. Mechanical consistency is hard to come by for many pitchers who work in the upper-nineties, but even though Cole’s walk rate has jumped a little this season, there’s a reason why he’s walked well-fewer than league average over the course of his career.