As a flurry of trade rumors continue to surround the surging Pirates, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Gerrit Cole is unlikely to be dealt at this year’s deadline.  That may be unsurprising given that the precursor to all this chatter was a Yankees’ “wish list” article, but it’s also because Cole has become one of the more enigmatic pitchers in baseball.

Some days, when Cole is on the mound, he resembles the burgeoning ace, who dominated the league with a 2.60 ERA and befuddled hitters with an electric fastball and a devastating slider combination, but on other days, he looks entirely too hittable for a guy possesses his repertoire and ability to hit triple digits.

Now, it was certainly the former case on Wednesday when Cole struck out ten Brewers, but is that something that can be expected to continue as the Pirates push for the playoffs?

Considering Cole has allowed four or more earned runs in five of his last eleven starts, including a trio of seven-run disasters, it’s a difficult question to answer, but I can that it will undeniably hinge on the effectiveness of his fastball.

The Fastball

Two seasons ago, Gerrit Cole thrived because his fastball was among the best in baseball, earning a Clayton Kershaw like 24.2 pitch value, but it isn’t even valued at one point for this season, which is about where it finished last season.  This declined success hasn’t been lost on Cole, because he altered his attack by decreasing his fastball usage from 66 percent to around 59 percent; however, the aforementioned results suggest that is hasn’t been the solution to his problems.  So what’s driving the poor results?

For one, his fastball doesn’t look like it used to in terms of vertical movement. As the chart below depicts, Cole’s fastball has had more vertical movement the past two seasons, coinciding with his declining results:

Writers and baseball pundits often point towards a loss of movement when explaining the struggles of a pitcher, but it is always the case that the player’s pitches have “less movement.”  Even though Cole has more movement on his fastball, he’s lost some of the late break on his fastball, meaning the movement is happening earlier in its trajectory and rendering the pitch easier to hit.

Earlier this season, Alan Saunders asked Cole a question about his mix of the four-seamer and two-seamer and Cole offered some commentary on the ball rising in the zone, saying, “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…”

For a pitcher who tosses the heat that Cole has, this is not quite strategy you would expect him to take, but there seems to be acceptance that this is a problem with his fastballs.

Horizontal movement

Additionally, the four-seamer has on average had 2.7 more inches of arm-side movement this season compared to last, which has had a few repercussions in terms of his splits.

While the horizontal movement is helping combat damage by right-handers by running in on hitter, the home runs are coming from left-handers because an inside pitch on them is running back towards the middle of the plate.  Take a look at how the “vs. Left-Handers” Heatmap paints this picture:The added horizontal movement is making it very difficult for right-handed hitters, especially since their numbers are inflated by a high BABIP; yet, Cole has a considerable home run problem with the four-seamer against southpaws. In fact, his HR/FB+LD rate, after never being above 8 percent against lefties, is hovering around an absurd 20 percent.

This is giving opposing hitters the ability to either drive it opposite field or square up for a deep hit to right field.  It is actually quite amazing that very few hits have traveled to right at all because this is not a typical spray chart for left-handed batters.

Changeup

In throwing the fastball less, Cole started leaning on the changeup roughly eight percent more of the time against southpaws. Theoretically, this should have helped keep opponents off-balance, but it hasn’t consistently been able to do that.

The changeup was stellar in his first seven starts, allowing zero extra base hits in six of the first seven games; however, it clearly became a liability from mid May to the start of July.  Considering both the velocity and the movement of the changeup have remained stable over the course of the season, it’s safe to assume that location and/or sequencing of the changeup and fastball are the culprits.  The fastball has been up or down regardless of the changeup, so we can’t say much more specifically about the causation of his fastball struggles.  (Although, it is worth noting that the four-game, 23 earned run stretch is the only time the changeup has been ineffective in consecutive games.)

It is disconcerting that two pitches have not simultaneously been successful this season in any sort of extended way, but this first time Cole’s career that the changeup has been a crucial part of his attack.  Thus, it could take him more time to work out some wrinkles, especially since this changeup, like his fastball, has 2-3 inches more of horizontal movement in 2017.

At not even 27 years of age, there is nothing wrong with Cole requiring more work to evolve and progress rather than depending on pure talent to rectify the situation.  Just expect him to continue honing his craft in a Pittsburgh jersey this season.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Today’s game, best example of enigmatic Cole, for all his good starts he can’t seem to get to or beyond the 7. We have to stop calling this guy an ace.

  2. I question whether Cole is injured and isn’t physically capable of throwing his 4-seam FB the way he was in 2015?

    Regardless, Cole isn’t currently the Pitcher he once was, and as such, I don’t envision a team blowing Pirates away with an offer for him.

    • What I remember most about his 2015 season was his two seamer, he was getting k’s and grounders at an elite level. But let’s face it, it’s not just the fastball, his breaking stuff has decline as well.

    • My suspicion is he’s having particular difficulty with the new ball. He never had a ton of movement on his breaking stuff, and the lower seams reduce drag, which reduces movement, so now it’s even flatter. Couple that to the increased carry of the new ball, and you get the home run problems he’s had.

      And the home runs are more or less his only problem. He could stand to strike more guys out, but his current rate is mostly fine. He’s not walking a lot of guys. He’s keeping the ball on the ground. He’s inducing his highest career rate of soft contact. It’s just the dingers.

      • Something to think about, for sure.

        His average air ball exit velo allowed is almost exactly the same between 2015 and 2017 (91.6 mph vs 91.8 mph) but a higher *percentage* of his batted balls allowed seem to be in the upper band that produces home runs (4.1% Barrels/PA vs 8.2% Barrels/PA).

        • Yeah, that’s why I think the inconsistency in movement is to blame. He’s become more prone to hangers; the new ball amplifies his mistakes.

          I compared the movement on his slider from 2015 and 2017, and sure enough, while the typical movement is roughly the same, this year more of his sliders haven’t moved horizontally at all. The new ball reduces movement, almost certainly, because physics says it should, and Cole has correspondingly thrown more hangers.

          I can’t find home runs broken down by pitch, but I think I can remember several coming off the slider.

          He’s also definitely not tipping his pitches by release point, because his release point is remarkably consistent. Every pitch–and I mean all of them–have come out of a 1 square inch box.

      • Great observation. I hadn’t even considered the ball when thinking about potential causes for his issues. Definitely a strong possibility.

  3. Bucs may never have that number 1 ace pitcher. But having quality starters like Tallion, Cole, Nova and adding a Glasnow with big upside along with someone emerging from the depth is a good position to have. No way he is traded unless the offer is a offer NH or whoever can’t refuse.

  4. What are these flurries of trade rumors you speak of? Other than the Red Sox being interested in a 3B to which some speculated Jay-Hay, the other news on the Bucs trade front is who they aren’t trading. I’d love to see a rumor regarding a player they might be interested in.

    • Pirates brass does a good job of keeping leaks from getting out. Others outside organization may put Pirates business out for others to see (Cutch last winter for example), but I wouldn’t expect to hear many rumors about Pirates, just speculation.

      • Yeah, typically the only news I read is when they actually make a trade and it’s normally someone who we didn’t expect at all. The article started off mentioning “a flurry of trade rumors”. I check mlbtraderumors and mlbdailydish every day and I haven’t seen any trade rumors.

        • Right after the AS Break there was something on MLBTrade Rumors, but I watch that pretty closely also, and all I have seen is that Gray is the Sweetheart of the Astro’s. Fact is if the Astro’s wanted Gray, he’d be there already.

          If the Astro’s want Cole, IMO, it will take their #2 Prospect OF Kyle Tucker, #5 Prospect RHP Forrest Whitley, and #14 Prospect 1B/OF Yordan Alvarez. Tucker at 20 is already at AA and every bit as good as Robles of the Nats. Whitley 19 is at Hi A, and Alvarez 20 is also at Hi A.

  5. Cole needs to prove that he can be the kind of pitcher who can be the ace, who can dominate any lineup and in the most important games – he has yet to do so. If the Pirates decide to not move him, I won’t be upset – but he needs to become more than the #3 starter – which is what he is right now.

    However, I would let teams know that he is available for the right price – and see what kind of offers it generates. This team could survive losing him – he’s not been a huge asset to this team in over 2 years. Starting pitching depth and options are things the Pirates have an abundance of – and its not like he is Kershaw or Bumgartner. He’s a mediocre .500 pitcher. He’s not going to re-sign with Pittsburgh either – he will become a free agent in 2-3 years. If someone offers a ridiculous offer, I’d consider it – the team needs position player prospects and bats – especially for third base, behind the plate, and in the OF.

    • I completely disagree on the makeup of their prospects. They have a bunch of position players. Especially at second base and SS. But I think a few of those guys can play 3b just fine also…and then they have Hayes at high a and just drafted a 3b high also and have wood at Indy. They are bottom loaded at OF for sure after this years draft but they have Luplow and meadows at Indy and have marte and polanco signed long term plus osuna and Frazier so it’s not like there is any short term desperation to get an OF. It looked like a slight issue coming into season but has become a position of depth at this point. While they do have some decent pitching prospects and depth if they dealt cole they would be crazy not to get a near finished product potential future #1-2 type in a deal for Cole. I don’t care what his results are. Any team that wants him is paying for the still enormous potential at a young age. Pitchers like him usually put together at least one 2.50 era low 1.00 whip, 250 k season at some point…and he’s already been fairly close to doing it. He just needs to have that year where it all breaks right. I hope it is with the pirates and not elsewhere.

      • What position player do they currently have who could be a real 3b prospect and someone who has a bat to play at 3b as a major league regular? Hayes has the potential – who else? What SS or 2B prospect has the bat to play regularly at 3B in the majors? Kramer? He’s never played at 3b, although his bat has potential….I can’t think of anyone else….

      • There is a difference between having a body to put in a position and a difference maker that can get you a championship. Frazier and Osuna in the outfield serve no purpose towards a championship team as far as their value at those positions, so lets jettison them from the conversation. Polanco and Meadows have been shown to be injury prone and Cutch is as good as gone, so that leaves you a guy whom is an all-star, but is also a steroid offender. So….who else promises to be a star in our organization at position depth? Noone. We don’t need more Newmans and Meadows, we need impact bats. We’ve got decent players that project to add value, but no difference makers anywhere in the minors at this point…..Next topic: Cole, at this point, is a #3. He isn’t going to get a future ace in return. That’s why you hold on and hope he adds value again next year. Trade deadline 2018, you hope he can fetch you a replacement.

        • I agree with just about all of your opinions here….unless someone offers some absurd package, I think the Pirates will be keeping Cole – as his value has to be somewhat diminished….

      • Hayes might turn into an OK baseball player, but currently he hits for almost zero power, and barely enough OB potential to still be considered a prospect. The 3Bman the Pirates drafted has some serious red flags meaning he is much further down on the potential list.
        Frazier sucks. Polanco is proving to be an injury prone fringy player. I would like to see Osuna get more time in the field, but 1) I don’t see it happening and 2) I don’t really expect much better results than he has put up. However, his results at the plate have been better than either other option.
        Can you list out for us all of these 2B/SS prospects that you refer to? Not just the ones you feel can play #B also, but all of them in general. Newman and Tucker may prove to be average regulars, but I would withhold judgement on Kramer, a couple good months at AA really isn’t enough of a track record to change my opinion of him.

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