Quick: Gimme the 1-2-3 in strikeouts last season. Can you name them? The first two aren’t much of a shock based on recent history, but the third … well, he’d never been this good before …
Take a minute.
Ok. First and second are Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Future Hall of Famers, Cy Young winners, flame-throwing strikeout-gobbling aces. No surprise. Third?
Gerrit Cole. Yes, Cole had two other seasons with great strikeout numbers, but he never approached third in all of baseball. He was a different guy in 2018, one of the best starters in the sport. How’d he get here, only a few months after being traded away from the team who drafted him with the first pick in the draft?
First, understand: overall, Cole was mostly good with the Pirates but underwhelming considering his early promise. Baseball loves a young, kickass pitcher and Cole fit the bill in 2015: 208 innings pitched, 149 ERA+, 4.6 bWAR at age 24. This set the bar for Cole in Pittsburgh. The sport had found its next Cy Young contender.
Except, well, it hadn’t. Cole got hurt in 2016 and worked his way through two average-ish seasons, throwing 319 combined innings to the tune of a 102 ERA+ in 2016-17. As the Pirates floundered and as Scott Boras, Cole’s agent, saw visions of cash dancing in his eyes, the Bucs shopped their young pitcher. Can’t say I blame them exactly … if the team wasn’t able to straighten him out, they certainly weren’t interested in giving him a big extension.
Finally, Cole ended up in Houston. There’s been some commotion about how exactly this happened — paging Trevor Bauer — but Cole’s spin rate metrics increased basically across the board in 2018, and along with it his effectiveness (under the years, I am giving you spin rate – whiff%):
|Fastball||2164 – 19.8%||2379 – 29.7%|
|Slider||2417 – 34.3%||2571 – 36.2%|
|Curve||2667 – 25.5%||2842 – 33.9%|
The fastball — with its combination of high velocity, improved spin rate and vertical movement — became a deadly weapon for Cole in 2018 (as we’re going to see). Because a great fastball is a rising tide that lifts all boats, the improvement of that pitch (despite throwing it slightly less) carried Cole to his best season. The curve got better too, plus Cole deserved credit for cutting his sinker usage about in half, relying instead on his breaking pitches more.
This week’s Ode to a Pitcher will break tradition with the others. Instead of watching an ace bear his teeth and tear through an opposing lineup, we’ll see Cole get into some trouble here in this September start. Facing the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox, the Astros righthander will work himself into a bit of a jam with some heavy hitters up at the plate.
But don’t worry — we’ll get a glimpse of that excellent fastball — and a dash of spice at the end.
We jump to the bottom of the third. The festivities begin with a fastball to Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon. I’m not picking on him here, but did you know Leon finished the 2018 season with a 38 OPS+? 38. I’m sort of at a loss here.
Cole follows it up with a nasty curve for a called strike two. Notice the placement.
It might not be as perilous as facing Chris Sale when down 0-2, but Cole’s no picnic. Leon spoils a hard fastball to keep the count alive, though.
Talk about an emergency hack — but that’s what professional hitters do. Keep the at-bat alive.
Cole comes right back and straightens up the Red Sox backstop.
Cole comes back with another curve that catches more of the plate than he’d surely like. Leon bounces it foul and the count stays 1-2.
I love this. Having left Leon just a bit too much ball to work with, Cole moves the curve down and away and punches him out.
Beautiful. The break on this is incredible. Note too that Leon has to be ready for the fastball; Cole has worked both sides of the plate with it already. Can’t be sitting on either.
Up next is Jackie Bradley Jr., the light-hitting (92 OPS+) but sweet-gloving centerfielder. Cole greets him with a breaking pitch that misses wide.
Cole comes back with a fastball — notice how catcher Martin Maldonado just wants it up. Bradley looks like he was sitting on it but misses anyway. Velocity + spin rate, kids.
Bradley takes a nasty fastball for a ball. The Astros announcers are incredulous about this call. It’s probably a strike, but alas — the count runs 2-1.
Cole misses down and in with a breaking pitch to run the count 3-1.
Many a rough inning begin with a walk to a batter low in the batting order. Bradley takes the fastball low-and-in and trots down to first, bringing up the eventual AL MVP with a man on.
Shall we take a moment to appreciate Mookie Betts? We shall. The Red Sox rightfielder had such a great season that he poked his head into the rarefied air above the clouds currently reserved for only Mike Trout: 10.9 bWAR, 186 OPS+. Yowza.
Bradley is a threat to steal, mind you, as Betts looks at a curve to start the at-bat.
Cole comes up and in with a straighten-you-up fastball that Betts takes for a ball.
Cole offers up another fastball, but leaves it enough over the plate for Betts to knock foul.
Cole goes back to the curve and Betts rips it down to third baseman Alex Bregman, who handles it OK but was playing too deep to throw the eventual MVP out. If that breaking ball is a hair or two lower, maybe Bregman can throw him out, but who knows. Betts is really fast.
Two on, one out and the Red Sox have some serious hitters coming up.
Up steps young leftfielder Andrew Benintendi. This isn’t really a double-play situation for Cole; Betts is way too fast unless you manage to do it on the corners. That’s not really a strategy.
Cole starts the lefty with a curve that misses high and away.
Cole leaves a curve (maybe a changeup?) over the plate and Benintendi lofts it out to left field for the second out. Cole left the pitch over the plate and Benintendi just didn’t quite get ahold of it. Is that Cole getting lucky? I’m not sure. Probably a little, but hitters have to respect that fastball. If the young outfielder expected one here, that might explain the flyout.
Even despite the second out, trouble is knocking at the door in the form of Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez and his 173 OPS+.
Two on. Two great teams. A great slugger against a great flamethrower. There aren’t many cooler scenes in the game than this.
Cole doesn’t disappoint: fastball, strike one. Martinez just misses.
Cole comes right back to the heater, this time throwing it higher and powering it past Martinez for a swinging strike. What a pitch.
You know the guts it takes to throw this pitch to J.D. freaking Martinez? You miss with it and he deposits it onto someone’s windshield.
Sitting 0-2, Cole has a full set of options. He returns to the fastball but moves it up against Martinez’s hands, who fouls it off. I love that Cole isn’t nibbling here against a hitter who absolutely can hammer even your best stuff, much less your mistake. But alas, Cole brings the best he has. Mano e mano. Fastballs up in the zone.
Cole wisely changes the eye-level here, surrendering a ball to give the Red Sox DH something to think about. This isn’t nibbling; it’s sequencing. You keep pounding fastballs in the same spot and eventually, you’ll miss and Martinez won’t. This is smart pitching.
Also: I didn’t show you this, but Cole stepped off the mound twice before this pitch. Was it just to mess with timing or to keep Betts and Bradley in line? Both. Pitchers attack hitters with more than just the ball.
Cole comes right back with another slider in about the same spot that misses low.
Now we’re talking. Before the next pitch is delivered, Martinez asks for time — a little tit-for-tat with what Cole was doing before. It’s all part of the battle.
But now here we are, a 2-2 count. Cole, boasting an excellent fastball, finds himself in a tough at-bat against one of the most dangerous hitters alive with two runners on. A single probably scores both.
What do you do? Martinez hasn’t seen the curve. He’s definitely seen the fastball, and its impact might be boosted by the two sliders that missed down and away.
Cole chooses his best pitch. He brings the heat.
Verlander and Cole form one of the most entertaining pairs in any rotation in the sport for pitching nerds like myself. Both are flame-throwing but also cerebral, using timing, sequencing and of course, tunneling, to present as stiff a challenge as possible.
It’ll be fascinating to see how good Cole can be in 2019. If he maintains or even improves on some of the pitch development he showed last season, he’s a Cy Young candidate and in line for a big payday next winter. If he tails off a little, he’s still an elite pitcher and a great companion for Verlander in the Houston rotation.