Barnett: Has the Old Gerrit Cole Returned?

Until Tuesday night, it had been difficult to predict exactly what type of pitcher Gerrit Cole was going to be this season.  He was pure magic in 2015, but in 2016, injuries and inconsistency had him, at times, hardly resembling the burgeoning superstar we had seen just a year before.

Nevertheless, rather than provide insight and optimism this offseason that he was back and poised to build off the 2015 campaign,  Cole seemed more inclined to emphasize his desire to simply stay healthy this year.  It was a modest and essential goal, but hardly the tantalizing words Pirates’ fans wanted to hear.

In Cole’s 2017 debut, he cruised through the first four innings efficiently and effectively, retiring twelve of the first thirteen hitters on a mere fifty pitches.  Unfortunately, that is where the Cole train derailed as he coughed up five runs the following inning despite having put away the first two batters.  The next few starts went smoother than the one in Fenway, but his movement was still not what it once was, leaving much room for skepticism and doubt.

Yet, Cole convinced me on Tuesday that we might not be seeing the 2015 or 2016 Gerrit Cole, but an even better one.  In fact, Joe Maddon himself, couldn’t help but echo the thought, saying: “Cole could not have pitched better…You’ve got to give that guy credit. I know he’s good and I’ve always said that, but I’ve not seen him that good. We had to pitch that well tonight to beat him. He was outstanding, both pitchers were.”

Sure, the Bucs’ anemic offense squandered the game, but that shouldn’t obscure the brilliance he exhibited in dominating the Cubs.  So let us spend some time exploring how Cole might have taken a step forward this season.

A Healthy Gerrit Cole

For starters, this Gerrit Cole is healthy, which is something we really could never say last season.  It may seem like a frivolous place to start, but there’s a reason it was at the top of his list for the 2017 season.  After all, he struggled with injuries for almost the entire year in 2016, beginning with a rib issue as early as Spring Training.  The regular season saw him land on the disabled list with a strained triceps once and an additional two times with elbow soreness, which would eventually cut his season short.  When able to pitch, he was mildly effective, but his ability to keep hitters off-balance was ultimately hindered by limited movement and trouble locating pitches.

Consequently, there was genuine concern in seeing him come out flat against the Red Sox on Opening Day this year because the pitch movement was worse than anything he displayed last season; in fact, the movement numbers were so drastic that it called into question the calibration of the tracking system at Fenway that day. Regardless, the results weren’t desirable either, but gradually, the movement improved and so did the results, suggesting Cole was truly healthy and poised for a strong season.

Gerrit Cole didn’t have a healthy season in 2016. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

“He’s healthy this year,” said Chris Stewart, and as a result, “His fastball location is better, he’s able to get it to where he needs to, and then he plays his slider off that. It comes out of the same slot, so I don’t think the hitters pick it up as well. … Strength wasn’t there last year, so he was fighting himself every day just to get to his arm strong. This year, he’s able to me more consistent.”

Of course, full health alone doesn’t mean he’ll best the 2.60 ERA/3.15 xFIP he posted two seasons ago, especially considering only Noah Syndergaard achieved that feat last season, but Cole could finally solidify his place among the league’s elite starting pitchers this season if he remains at full health.

An Evolving Arsenal

Alright, it’s fine and dandy that he is healthy, but that’s not the only thing different about Cole.  Simply put, it seems the use of his arsenal is evolving.  Take a look at his usage breakdown this season compared to his career numbers:

Anyways, most of the other fastball heavy starters don’t have the ability to dial it up the way that Cole can, so he’s typically been able to thrive by showing a wide range of velocity on his fastball and by using the slider to wipe out opposing hitters.  That just wasn’t the case last season, which is a topic we will get to shortly.Gerrit Cole has always been fastball heavy, throwing the heater a whopping two-thirds of the time since entering the league in 2013, and while his numbers aren’t the absurd Bartolo Colon-type of distribution, there’s not many successful starting pitchers relying on the fastball at a more prevalent rate.  To be quite honest, on the list of starters utilizing the fastball over 60 percent, there are a lot more Robbie Rays and Jared Cosarts than there are Gerrit Coles.

This season Cole has relied on the fastball frequently  as well, but he ranks only 30th in the league in terms of usage, and I might add that no one with higher velocity is throwing it more than he is.  Still, the significant change is that he’s tossing the fastball roughly 8 percent less in favor of the changeup and a slight spike in the slider. The slider spike is encouraging in and of itself, but it’s particularly notable that the changeup jumped to 13.4 percent usage because he’s only thrown it 3-5 percent over the past two seasons.  Also, Cole has never even thrown 7 percent or more changeups in back to back games; yet, in four of the first five games this year, he has utilized it at least 14 percent of the time.

Perhaps, it’s too early to render a verdict about pitch usage, but he appears to be going for a more well-rounded attack than we’ve ever seen from him, making him a potentially more devastating arm for the Pirates moving forward.

Why the Change in Approach?

Fastball Issues

Early in Cole’s career, it wasn’t a crazy notion for him to throw the fastball so often since it both reached triple digits and killed in the minors.  (Actually, we saw Tyler Glasnow chuck his fastball, albeit with less control, for similar reasons in his debut year.)  Nonetheless, the more a pitcher depends on the fastball the more he is pressured to vary the velocity and execute his location if he wants to keep hitters off-balance because you can only blow past them for so long as a starter if those two things aren’t done effectively.

Another wrinkle for Cole’s fastball mix is that he’s able to be less predictable by offering the four-seamer and two-seamer.  In speaking to Alan Saunders, Cole elaborated on the importance of this.

“I think it’s a weapon,” Cole said. “Anybody can pitch upstairs if they know how to do it, but especially power pitchers have success doing that. More often that not, I feel like I’m trying to get the ball down, but we do challenge guys early in the count, sometimes — and late in the count — just to keep the mix and keep guys off-balance. You just avoid being predictable.”

Despite that ability, something shifted in 2016 and Cole seemingly became somewhat more predictable and hittable. He just couldn’t seem to recapture the movement on his fastballs; they were still breaking in on hitters effectively, but they continued to have less and less vertical break. As a result, Cole saw the fastball’s Fangraphs Pitch Value go from rivaling that of Clayton Kershaws in 2015 to being worse than Jeff Locke’s in 2016, and that precipitous drop in value was only exacerbated by Cole’s struggle with his slider.

The Slider Regained Effectiveness

In his dominant season in 2015, it was the slider/fastball combo that devastated hitters. The slider was chased outside of zone almost half of the time and opposing batters whiffed on it at a 20 percent rate.  It may not have possessed elite vertical or horizontal movement, but it was respectable, proceeding out of the same arm slot as the fastball. But just as the fastball movement changed, so also the slider movement took a big step backwards as you can see in the charts below:

The first chart displays the vertical movement on Cole’s slider by game from 2015-present. Obviously, the movement on the far left (2015) is vastly superior to the levels it reaches as you progress down the line because there is decreasing break on the pitches. Other than the absurd 5 inches of movement in one game against Boston, the slider is getting more downward break in 2017  than late last season, but it hasn’t reached the levels of 2015.

The second chart shows the horizontal movement of the slider over the same time frame. As far as the horizontal movement is concerned, there has also been a progressive decrease over the last two years, so that the slider no long breaks away from right-handed batters as drastically.

The decreasing movement showed in the results as batters posted a .275 batting average in 2016 after hanging around Mendoza line for Cole’s entire career. It’s not a terrible number, nor is the 100 wRC+ the slider allowed, but they were both a far cry from what they once were.

This season the movement hasn’t fully returned, but Cole has had success with the pitch that he attributes to his return to health.

“I feel like I’m back to being myself this year,” said Cole. “I’m assuming everything is probably better than it was last year. It’s a weapon that I lean on. It’s a pitch that you have to be in really good shape to throw, especially if you’re going to be throwing a good amount of it. Definitely, there were other factors last year, but I feel it’s just kind of back to normal.”

Even with the similar movement, the whiff rate is back and he’s inducing an insane 75 percent groundball rate on the pitch. While that rate will come down to earth, he continues to use the slider with confidence and proficiency that was lacking less season.  It certainly evidences that as he’s even begun using the pitch to wipe-out hitters again, almost as often as he used the fastball.

An Improved Changeup

Yesterday, I remembered a soundbite from a CBS Sports piece published this Spring in which former Pirate Mike Lavalliere was quoted as saying something along the lines of Cole possessing the “best changeup on the staff.”  It was strange, at the time I first read it, because Cole has never exhibited that. In 2014 and 2016, opposing batter put up robust 187 wRC+’s and 220 wRC+’s respectively against Cole’s changeup. Perhaps, Lavalliere was on to something because it’s been a stellar pitch for Cole this season.

Yet, this changeup doesn’t resemble Cole’s usual changeup, and the biggest difference with this 2017 changeup is that the horizontal movement runs in on a hitter more like the two-seamer than the four-seamer.  Cole has said that he hasn’t altered the changeup grip this year; although, he is apparently altering something to cause such different movement on the pitch.

In addition to the movement, he’s upped the velocity by one tick from 2016, but that’s a couple ticks faster than previous years, giving him a changeup that sits anywhere between 85.7 and 91.

It’s hard to argue with the elevated usage when the pitch has played so effectively off of his fastball, Opposing batters have managed just one base hit off the pitch with an incredible -56 wRC+.  Even if it’s not getting whiffs like a Felipe Rivero changeup, hitters have failed to produce solid contact, fouling off over 40 percent of Cole’s changeups.

Final Thoughts

We didn’t delve into the curveball, but Cole has moved almost exclusively to the knuckle curve according to Fangraphs.  It has struggled at times this year but remained useful against the Cubs on Tuesday.  If he can regain last season’s value out of the pitch, Cole could wind up with a dangerous five pitch arsenal bolstered by an excellent changeup.

Granted, it’s still early, and plenty could change as the season progresses, so it’s fine if you feel the need to sober expectations.  As far as I’m concerned, this season grows less dismal when I realize we’ve at least seen a glimpse of Cole taking the next step from being a fastball-slider pitcher to a more complete and upper echelon arm. And considering Cole has a stunning 2.17 ERA on the season if the terrible third of an inning against Boston is removed, it’s not hard to wonder and hope that a fully healthy Gerrit Cole has turned a corner.

Alan Saunders contributed to this article.

  • Good stuff Travis and Allen!

  • I plan on sitting back and enjoying the greatness of Gerrit Cole for as long as he’s wearing a P on his black and gold cap. Hopefully that will be for at least a couple more seasons and a few starts in October, too.

  • good to see him being successful. I was down on him and at this point in the season he is proving me wrong. Good for him.

  • Did Cole pick up the knuckle curve from Burnett?

  • So, we realistically have Cole for this year and next? Because we are going to, at the very least, trade him in the offseason of 2019 for as high of a return we can get (comp picks don’t work out very well, historically).

    We talk about Cutch’s “window” but the Cole window may be closing soon, too.

    I sure hope that Keller is ready in 2018 as Tim opined yesterday.

    • Tracy Painter
      April 27, 2017 2:30 pm

      If Cole “breaks out”, I hope the Pirates trade him THIS off-season. His value will be higher than after 2018. He will be presumably be healthy. And the Pirates would appear to have no realistic chance of signing him to a long term deal.

      Next year’s staff
      Tallion
      Nova
      Glassnow
      Kuhl/Kingham/Williams/Brault/Holmes/Eppler/TradePROSPECT

      The Pirates could get a lot for two years of a dominant Cole.

      There are plenty of teams out there FOOLISH enough to trade away three of their top five prospects for two years of Gerritt Cole.

      • I was with you up to that Glasnow fella. Unlike Randy Johnson, et al, (who people LOVE to compare TG to), Randy only gave up walks and not hits. TG is giving up both. I hope he makes it, but I have serious doubts right now.

        • Tracy Painter
          April 27, 2017 3:12 pm

          To this point, I have been unimpressed with Glassnow. My hope is that he rights the ship as the season progresses. If he doesn’t you’re still looking at at least dumping him into the pile of other prospects, hopefuls and pretenders.

          Kuhl/Kingham/Williams/Brault/Holmes/Eppler/

          tradePROSPECT/Glassnow/Hutch?

          Remember, I added the term pretender. 😉

        • Remember a few years ago when the pitching staff as a whole were told to ignore base runners? That was ugly. IMO, Glasnow is having troubles limiting damage because he is hyperaware of base runners when they reach, so much so, that he loses focus on executing pitches. As ugly as it may be(actually, probably no worse than it has been), maybe the coaches need to tell him to forget about the base runners, and just execute his pitches.

        • You don’t know much about Johnson’s, or Max Schrezer’s for that matter, early struggles. Let alone Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan’s.

      • Glassnow has only pitched three games but in all three games he has looked worse than Cole has ever looked. Why are you so convinced that he can be a number three? Right now I’m not sure he’s a good number five.

    • Looking at the team, it probably makes more sense to trade Cole next offseason than it does to hold him for another season. His value this coming offseason will be huge if he can remain healthy and pitch well. One thing I think we can all agree on is that we need offense, Cole can bring that. We can’t continue to be bad defensively and offensively, and frankly, I am sick of the defense first idea. It is not working, and not many of their minor leaguers are skilled defensively. Give me 8 guys that can hit, and I can find places to put them in the field. Give me 8 guys that can field, and I may not find a place to hit them.

      • I agree that a baseball team has to be able to hit for power to be successful. The Pirates can’t hit for power and it’s been an Achilles’ heel for two years now. But if you think they can win on offense alone, you don’t know baseball at all. Every successful baseball team can pitch very well. That’s just the game. If the Pirates are going to do anything this year – and that is a great big if – they will need Cole to pitch well and they will need him to be here all year.

        Taillon is comparable to Cole in talent but no one else on their roster is. Nova in my opinion is playing over his head right now and isn’t really better than a three. In my opinion you have to have three good to great pictures on your staff to make the postseason. If next year they dump Cole for offense and live with Kuhl, Glassnow and Brault – assuming Glassnow continues to struggle – they’ll be going nowhere next year too. You can’t put too high a value on good starting pitching.

        And by the way, the Pirates philosophy isn’t “defense first.” As far as I can tell, it never was. The Pirates philosophy appears to be “affordable first.” There are damn few players on this team that are both good offensively and defensively. The only two I can think of art available due to their own stupidity. The common denominator of every Pirate is that they are being paid less than their fair market value. That’s just the truth.

        • I never said I knew much about baseball, but I will say this with 100% certainty, no team has ever won a game while scoring 0 runs. At some point, and at some position, you need to value offense over defense. I think that is what they are trying to do with Josh Bell, but to this point in his career, he has not become the power hitter everyone hoped he would become. It also doesn’t appear that he will while he is in a PIrates uniform. However, his defense has improved to the point that he should stop being substituted for in the later innings.
          As for trading Cole, I was only speaking of when his highest return value would be. A team would give up more for 2 years of control than they would for 1 year of control, especially when there is about a 99.9% certainty that he will become a FA, no matter what offer is placed in front of him.

  • Is there any chance the Pirates offer Cole an extension anytime soon? I would really love to see Cole in a Pirates jersey after the 2019 season.

    • No.

      • I think it’s wishful thinking for anyone to truly believe Cole will be in Pittsburgh for his whole career. Best just to enjoy him while you can.

    • gonna gave to break into the tuck a buck jar

    • I hate to say this but with Cole being able to play out his option after 2019. And Scott Boras as his agent. I don’t see an extension in Cole’s future. I could see another Yankees trade. The Yankees have one of the best farm systems. We could get as least 2 of their best prospects. And we would still have Taillon and Nova at the top of the rotation.

    • We will be trading Cole after next year unfortunately. We better hope Keller is ready by then.

      • I think this is the most reasonable assumption. I can see scenarios where they would trade him at the deadline this year, but it would have to be for a boatload of prospects and they would have to really really really be bad – worse than they have been so far – through the trade deadline for that to happen

    • Unfortunately, if Cole can remain healthy, he is probably looking at a 6 year $200 million deal when he hits FA. That is based on the fact that, when healthy, he is one of the more dominant pitchers in baseball, and he will be relatively young when he reaches FA. So it is nearly impossible to see him signing an extension in Pittsburgh.

      My feelings are these, as much as I would love to see management build an offense around Cole, Taillon, and Nova, I realistically don’t see it happening. The next best option would be to trade Cole to build the offense around Taillon, Nova and Glasnow/Kingham/Keller. The only real question is, when do the Pirates get the best return for Cole?

  • This was fantastic stuff Travis. I have really been interested and following the dramatic increase(in relative percentage) in the use of the changeup. The other night might have been the best game Cole ever pitched regardless of game score.

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