In a seven-start stretch from May 17th to June 20th, Gerrit Cole threw either a four-seam fastball or a slider 82.6 percent of the time. At the time, I looked into whether that might be a sustainable strategy for him. The two pitches, after all, are easily his best. Yet, he’s only utilized the combo at an 80 percent clip once — albeit in an 11-strikeout masterpiece against the Rockies — in six starts since then. Why the shift?
Well, the cutter has benefitted the most from the drop in fastball/slider usage. The cut-fastball comprised a mere one percent of Cole’s pitches through his first 15 games this season; in fact, he didn’t throw it at all in 10 of those starts including a stretch of six starts in a row. But since then, he’s turned to it 9.5 percent of the time and at least once in each of his last seven starts.
When he added the pitch at the beginning of last season, it looked like a major win. Through his first 12 starts, he threw it 14.7 percent of the time and it saved him 2.8 runs, filling a rare pitch-movement gap in an otherwise deep and diverse arsenal:
But inexplicably, he moved away from it after that, throwing it just 2.1 percent of the time the rest of the way. Perhaps batters grew accustomed to it, or it wasn’t as sharp without as many in-game reps (it did lose an inch of rise), but either way, it cost him 4.6 runs through the rest of the year.
Now, it’s back, but with even more rise and cut. Compared to the cutter from the beginning of last year, in the seven-start stretch since Cole’s reintroduced it, the pitch has 2.6 more inches of both cut and rise in addition to an extra tick of velocity. The offering has saved the Yankees’ ace one run in that seven-outing span, which isn’t quite on par with the pace from early last season, but it’s still solidly above average.
At first, Cole may have returned to the cutter because his previously preferred tertiary offering — the knuckle curve — was coming off of a particularly poor pair of starts; the cut was merely serving as a stopgap until he could get the deuce back on track. But, despite the worse run-value pace relative to last season, he’s likely held onto the cutter — now at the expense of the curve as well — because there are other reasons to think that this time, the pitch has more staying power.
For starters, its Stuff+ is up from 85 to 110; in other words, the shape has gone from 15 percent worse to 10 percent better than league average. For secondary offerings, Stuff+ is also a function of how well the pitch pairs with the primary offering — in this case, Cole’s four-seamer — in the context of other secondaries.
While the two fastballs have crept closer together in terms of velocity and vertical movement, the cutter is now more squarely in between the slider and fastball by those two metrics, making it harder for hitters to distinguish among all three pitches. Last year, the cutter was 3.7 mph harder than the slider and 5.8 slower than the heater on average. This year, those numbers have shifted to 4 and 3.5, respectively. Last year, the cutter averaged 7.4 more inches of induced vertical break than the slider and 10.4 fewer than the fastball. This year, those marks are at 9.2 and 6.5, respectively.
What this has all added up to is a stronger four-seamer and slider combo in the presence of the cutter. On a run-value rate basis, the four-seamer has been slightly worse in the presence of the cutter (i.e., over Cole’s past seven starts) this season, but the slider has been nearly three times as effective — not to mention the cutter’s own positive impact. Last season, this wasn’t the case: the fastball and slider were worse with the cutter on a rate basis than when Cole virtually scrapped the pitch.
Gerrit Cole didn’t move away from the two-pitch experiment because he couldn’t succeed with a narrow repertoire. Rather, he did so because those two dominant offerings are an even better combo in the revamped cutter’s presence. The hallmark of a great player is a constant desire to get better and a willingness to adjust in order to do so. Cole has certainly demonstrated that in what has been his best season as a Yankee to date.
Note: stats are prior to Wednesday’s game, but Cole turned to the cutter 20 times in that contest, earning 15 strikes. Hitters went 1-3 against the pitch, with the one hit being a 69.8 mph single.