First Pitch: Why is Gerrit Cole Throwing So Many Fastballs?

Gerrit Cole has thrown a fastball almost 81% of the time. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gerrit Cole has thrown a fastball almost 81% of the time. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

In his first two starts, Gerrit Cole has gone heavy on the fastball. Really heavy. As in 80.7% of his pitches have been fastballs. Only one pitcher in all of baseball can top that amount, and that is Bartolo Colon, who is throwing 84.6% fastballs.

The first thing I thought about when I saw Cole’s fastball percentages was an article I read a little over a month ago about Ross Detwiler. The article was written by Adam Berry of MLB.com, looking at how frequently Detwiler was throwing his fastball.

Detwiler was throwing 89.6% fastballs this year, after throwing 80.3% last year. Just like Cole, Detwiler throws a four seam fastball and a two seam fastball. He’s got some good velocity on the four seam fastball, touching 96, but not anything close to the velocity that Cole has. Detwiler also does an outstanding job of pounding the strike zone and commanding his pitches, which is what makes him so effective with the fastball heavy approach.

Some of the things the article by Berry highlighted were:

**You’re not going to get far unless you throw your fastball where you want it.

**The fastball should set up all of the other pitches.

**Joe Maddon said that he thinks fastball pitchers with command and aggressiveness pitch deeper into games. He also noted that you get quick outs with a good fastball.

**Ryan Zimmerman said he thinks a well-located fastball is the hardest pitch to hit in the majors.

I didn’t need to see Cole throwing 80% fastballs in the majors to draw a connection between this article and something the Pirates might be embracing. Commanding the fastball, working off the fastball, and getting quick outs/working deep into games are core concepts for all of their pitchers in the minors.

If you look at the pitchers who have used the fastball the most this year, you’ll notice a trend with some of the teams at the top.

The Washington Nationals have three starting pitchers in the top 20 in fastball percentage. Those pitchers are Gio Gonzalez (7th), Jordan Zimmerman (13th), and Stephen Strasburg (18th). They’d have another if Detwiler had enough innings to qualify for the list.

The St. Louis Cardinals have two of the top five pitchers on the list. Lance Lynn (2nd) and Shelby Miller (4th) are both looking like current and future top of the rotation guys this year.

Those are two teams who have good reputations for developing prospects, and developing pitching prospects. As a team, the Cardinals throw the fastball more often than any other team in the majors (63.9%). The Nationals are third, at 62.7%. The Arizona Diamondbacks, another team who has been good recently at developing pitchers, are in second plate (63.2%).

So where do the Pirates stack up in the majors? Their team total is 60.7%, ranking 8th overall. Their rotation (including injured players) includes the following results:

Gerrit Cole – 80.7% fastball

Charlie Morton – 74.4%

Jeff Locke – 66.2%

Jeanmar Gomez – 65.8%

James McDonald – 61.1%

A.J. Burnett – 60.9%

Wandy Rodriguez – 59.6%

Francisco Liriano – 43.5%

The average starting pitcher in the majors throws the fastball 55.7% of the time. The only starter who is below that number is Liriano. Everyone else is above average, and it’s not even close.

But it’s not just about throwing fastballs. It’s about throwing good fastballs. Probably the best way to judge how effective the fastball approach is would be to look at how opponents are hitting the ball. The Pirates starters rank 27th in line drive percentage at 19.5%. If they were throwing bad fastballs, you would probably be seeing more line drives, with more batters squaring up on the pitch.

That doesn’t say much about the results of their development system, since Cole and Locke are the only guys who were developed by the Pirates out of the group of pitchers above. But it does indicate that the approach is working.

As for Cole, there’s no question that he’s got a great fastball. In his first start of the year he averaged 96.1 MPH with his four seam fastball. That was better than any other starting pitcher who has thrown a pitch this year, including Stephen Strasburg (95.5), Matt Harvey (95.0), and Jeff Samardzija (95.0). You could easily argue that with that velocity, his fastball is one of the best pitches in the majors. So why not throw it until opponents show they can hit it? So far, they haven’t been able to do a good job in that department.

The fastball approach is good, but Cole still needs those off-speed pitches to get the key strikeout. He hasn’t been able to do that this year, both in Triple-A and the majors. This was on display today in the second inning. With a runner on third and only one out, Cole was in a prime situation for a strikeout. He went 1-2 to Tim Federowicz, then threw two straight slurves (not his slider, which is the better breaking pitch, and which he hasn’t been using). Both went for balls. He ended up getting an RBI groundout on a 99 MPH fastball.

It has been a problem all year that Cole can’t put people away when needed with those breaking pitches. He’s still going to be a good pitcher without that, since he goes with a fastball heavy approach, and his fastball is a great pitch. But if Cole could improve the command of his slider (or actually use it, and I’m not sure why he isn’t), then he could become a great pitcher. A guy who has one of the best fastballs in the game, and who can control a game using only his fastball is one thing. That guy with a dominant breaking pitch that he can command and use for strikeouts when needed is another. If Cole can reach that point, he could reach his ceiling as a true ace, and one of the best pitchers in the game.

Links and Notes

**Check out the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 9: What To Do With the Rotation When The Starters Return?

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker.

**Prospect Watch: Jameson Taillon Strong in His Return to the Mound.

**Jameson Taillon strong as Altoona wins 5th straight.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Pound Reds, Lose In Extras to Mets.

**Minor League Schedule: Pimentel Set To Make Indianapolis Debut.

**Prospect Notebook: Huntington Explains the Polanco, Pimentel, and Kingham Promotions.

**Pirates Beat Dodgers 6-3 on Alvarez’s Homer, Cole’s Deja Vu.

**Second-Round Pick Blake Taylor Signs Under Slot.

**Eliecer Navarro to be Promoted to Altoona.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • BuccosFanStuckinMD

    Another factor with Cole, at least in yesterday’s game, he clearly stated that his other pitches were not working – namely his curve.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    His slider is his number two pitch, from what I’ve read. I am still waiting to see it. :)

    • smurph

      I did not see the game Sunday, but in Cole’s first game he threw a few sliders. His slider has a very late break to it, but not a huge amount of break. He mostly missed the strike zone with them in the early innings, so didn’t really use it much after that.

      • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

        Cole throws a slurve in the mid-80s, which you could classify as a slider. He also throws a slider in the upper 80s/low 90s which acts more as a cutter.

        For Cole, the mid-80s is a curve and the upper 80s/low 90s is a slider. However, you could classify the curve as a slider and the slider as a cutter.

        • smurph

          So if the slider/curve is a slurve, is the slider/cutter a slutter?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

    fans need to realize that a fastball is not a pitcher’s “out” pitch, that a good fastball sets up the true “out” pitch. they also need to realize that pitchers don’t always have all their pitches working at any given time. when Wandy struggles its usually because his curve isn’t as good as it normally is. but make no mistake about this—- if Wandy was throwing 85% fastballs the numbers would be nothing close to Cole’s

  • smurph

    “a well-located fastball is the hardest pitch to hit in the major leagues.” Well I guess it depends on who is throwing it. If it were Bert Blyleven throwing, I would say “a well-located curve is the hardest pitch to hit.” It depends on the pitcher. The FB is not only Cole’s best pitch, but also the one he has the most control of. I guess I am wondering if the two-seamer is considered a fastball in those stats you showed. IMO, the 2-seamer is not really a fastball, at least not in the sense that it is the fastest pitch a pitcher throws. Since Morton throws mostly 2-seamers, I assume that accounts for his 74% rate. So are 2-seamers included in the average velocities you showed, as most pitchers lose 3-4 mph on them?

  • http://www.facebook.com/fred.langford.9 Fred Langford

    When I saw Cole in Columbus a few weeks ago he was fastball heavy that night too. I only saw 2-3 pitches an inning under 93mph. Not sure if this has been going on all year but this is good for him. His fastballs are dominant when he keeps them down in the zone…and he has had some issues with this in the past…Curt Schilling dominated throwing the fastball nonstop. Cole has 0 walks and homers rendered in the mlb so far…when you throw 93-98 all day with control down in the zone…it is gonna be tough for hitters.

  • blackmax

    Good stuff, once again. I suppose that the slider will enter the picture when needed. In addition, I think that if anybody can get him to mix pitches effectively, it will be Martin.

  • leadoff

    I noticed in his first game Cole’s horizontal and vertical breaks on his fastball where almost identical to Morris fastball, the difference being Morris was throwing 94-95, Cole was throwing 96-99.
    I think that throwing the fastball as much as Cole throws it is a good thing, quick outs are the best thing that can happen to a pitcher, if he gives up a couple of runs, so what everyone eventually does. I also appears that Cole keeps that velocity all the way up until he gets taken out.
    IMO, he just needs to work on better location with his FB, work on getting any breaking ball over and work on his change a little more. Can you imagine if Cole could throw one of those Karstens 60mph slowballs after one of his 99mph fastballs.
    IMO, I still wish he was in AAA, I think it would have been better for him.