Ode to a Pitcher: As free agency looms, Gerrit Cole strikes out the world

Image result for gerrit cole
Chances are it’s a heater and you probably won’t touch it.

You like strikeouts? We got strikeouts.

Well, Gerrit Cole does, anyway. He gets it done with raw power, right in your face. The Houston Astros righty leads Major League Baseball in strikeouts per nine innings; he throws the second hardest average fastball among starters. He throws that 97 MPH fastball almost 55 percent of the time, challenging hitters over and over with it.

This stat kind of blew me away. Hitters whiff against Cole’s fastball almost 38 percent of the time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that’s the value of velocity and spin rate coming together. Cole’s fastball is dominant.

I’ve profiled some awesome, creative pitchers in this Ode to a Pitcher series. Take Dodgers lefty and possible NL Cy Young favorite, Hyun-Jin Ryu, for example. Ryu gets outs with deception. He moves the ball around the zone, cuts it and runs it, changes speeds. He uses everything at his disposal to get outs.

Cole doesn’t work quite that way. Maybe once his fastball loses its edge, but not now. Cole does work throughout the zone, but almost everything he throws is harder than 90 MPH. Cole forces the batter to contend with hard velocity on every pitch, be it a fastball, slider or changeup. You won’t get an eephus from Gerrit Cole.

It works. Cole has been an ace for the Astros since they acquired him before the 2018 season, and he’s lining himself up for a big payday this winter. Cole is fourth in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement, behind only Max Scherzer, Lance Lynn (!!!) and Charlie Morton. Good company.

It’s remarkable how effortless it looks with Cole. He doesn’t have the long whip delivery of an Aroldis Chapman, for example, or even the classic style of Justin Verlander. Cole just … throws. Visually he doesn’t seem to strain or exert, and yet, he’s pumping gas past big-league hitters.

Let’s take a look at how Cole fared in the bottom of the seventh inning in a recent start against the Los Angeles Angels.

Despite high pitch count, Cole holds his velocity

Pitching with a big lead, Cole enters the bottom of the seventh nearing 100 pitches. In a lot of cases, that kind of pitch count leads to a pitcher losing some velocity. Fatigue is no small thing. And yet, as Angels first baseman Matt Thaiss discovered, Cole throws hard seemingly no matter what.

Cole opens the inning with a slider that misses low for ball one.

Thaiss Pitch 1 SL

Cole climbs the ladder with a hard 97 MPH fastball and blows it past Thaiss for a strike. It can seem so simple as to not even be worth discussing, but even a pitcher like Cole benefits from simply changing eye level and speed. He might not have to work this way all the time, but pitching is pitching.

I won’t show you this in every gif, but notice the slight pause as Cole moves into a loaded position (his leg raised)? Adding just an extra moment of delay to that part of the delivery could mess with a hitter. Remember. Pitching is nothing more, nothing less than screwing up a batter’s timing. Period.

Thaiss Pitch 2 FB

Cole stays above the belt with another fastball, but this one misses high for ball two.

Thaiss Pitch 3 FB

Cole slams a 98 MPH fastball right on the outside corner to run the count 2-2. Being so well-located, it’s hard to imagine Thaiss doing much with this fastball: that’s the point. It’s a great pitch, and now the count is back in Cole’s favor.

Thaiss Pitch 4 FB

Cole tries to tempt Thaiss with a fastball just a bit outside of the last one, but Thaiss lets it go push the count full. Solid take. It’s not fun being in a strikeout situation against Gerrit Cole, my dudes.

Thaiss Pitch 5 FB

Man, this is really something.

Cole reaches back for a 99 MPH fastball and blows Thaiss away with it. There’s something about the location here that just feels borderline cruel to me. This is a Clint Eastwood mano e mano fastball.

After showing Thaiss fastballs away, Cole brings one below the belt on the inside lane and just eats the batter up with it.

Spin rate and velocity. That’s it. One down.

Thaiss Pitch 6 FB

Up steps Dustin Garneau to face Cole, who drops a slider just below the outside corner for ball one. When breaking Cole down, the first step is always the fastball. He throws it hard, he throws it a lot, etc.

But the slider is important. No starter can reasonably succeed longterm at Cole’s level with just one dependable pitch. His slider is important and darn useful. The expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) (a stat derived from batted ball data to offer a projected level of performance against that singular pitch) for Cole’s slider is a frigid .246.

So yeah. Good luck batters.

Garneau Pitch 1 SL

Cole spins another slider to Garneau, this one nestled right into the outside corner for a called strike. Pay attention that he’s worked down and away with the first two pitches of the at-bat. I betcha that comes into play.

Garneau Pitch 2 SL

See! I wouldn’t lie to you.

Cole moves into the opposite quadrant of the zone with a fastball — a great idea — but runs it too far inside to for ball two. The count is now in Garneau’s control.

Also, note that on his 103rd pitch of the night in Anaheim, Gerrit Cole hit 98 MPH. Just note that.

Garneau Pitch 3 FB

Cole turns to the changeup — an effective (.261 xwOBA) but rare offering for him (6.4 percent) — and fools Garneau for strike two. He leaves it dead center over the plate and still manages to draw a flinch out of Garneau. This is the power of not only the fastball but also Cole having worked in two distinct parts of the strike zone. Mess. With. Timing.

Garneau Pitch 4 CH

I love the idea here. Cole is in a strikeout count and he didn’t step onto the mound for weak groundouts. He wants the K and goes for it with a slider out of the zone. The sequencing isn’t perfect, but his slider is nasty and Garneau hasn’t responded like a batter with a lot of confidence.

So, good idea, yes? Why not reach for the strikeout? Ah, but what if this slider was just a setup pitch …

Garneau Pitch 5 SL

Sequencing, spin rate and velocity. Cole’s fastball, his 106th pitch of the night, registers at 99 MPH and completely demolishes Garneau. The slider away forced the batter to be ready to protect the outside corner — Cole had thrown three sliders in that area. He’d look especially foolish if he whiffed at a fourth slider there, right?

So Cole flips the script and brings the heat, belt high, and hammers the inside corner. Brilliant pitch. Two down.

Garneau Pitch 6 FB

David Fletcher is the last hope for the Angels in the bottom of the seventh. Cole throws a slider up and away (!!!) and Fletcher misses it for strike one. I assume Cole just missed his spot here, but who knows. I bet Fletcher was looking fastball.

Fletcher Pitch 1 SL

Smart pitching. Cole goes back to the slider — priming the pump for a fastball should he want to turn there next — but spins it out of the zone away. Why is that important? If it’s out of the zone, chances are Fletcher can only whiff or take it for ball one. Maybe foul it off.

Hard to give up a homer this way. Alas, the pitch is nasty and Fletcher can’t resist. Now he’s deep in the hole, a bug awaiting a boot.

Fletcher Pitch 2 SL

What can I say? It’s not like I’d fare any better.

Fletcher Pitch 3 FB

Cole has a big check coming to him

Cole’s free agency could be a frenzy. He’s 28 years old coming off two excellent seasons, pumping incredible velocity and spinning a nasty slider. You can imagine a whole bunch of big-spending teams pursuing him: Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies and maybe more.

Ever since he was drafted first overall by the Pirates, Cole looked like a future ace. After one great season and a few mediocre ones, he was sent out from the Steel City and landed down in Texas. Now an ace, forming a two-headed behemoth with Verlander, Cole looks like the pitcher everyone thought he’d be.

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