Real Time Analytics

How Gerrit Cole Became An Ace

Gerrit Cole has been dominant in 2015. How has he taken that next step?

Why is Gerrit Cole so good this season?” 

My friends have asked me this. I’ve asked myself this. My girlfriend has asked me this. Okay, that last part was a lie. But in general, now that Gerrit Cole, the young right-handed hurler on the Pirates, has a significant chance to start the 2015 All-Star Game, people want to know why. Where did this guy come from? How did he get so much better? Will he stay this good? Well, after wondering some of these things myself, I did a bit of research and I’m going to take my best crack at hopefully answering some of these questions below. Prepare yourself for some charts.

1. Cole is throwing harder

Last season, he averaged around the 96 MPH range with his fastball — this season he is throwing 97 a lot more consistently. This is a guy who always threw hard, but is finally healthy for a full season. More importantly, his breaking and offspeed stuff is showing increased gas too. He has always thrown a fast curveball, which is one of the best in baseball, but its even better now (velocity of his breaking stuff is up from 85.5 MPH on average in 2014 to 86.5 MPH). His offspeed stuff is up 1 MPH too AND it has better movement. 

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2. As I briefly mentioned, Cole is showing better movement on his pitches

What does this mean? Well, the righty is showing that he has finally become a true four-pitch pitcher. Take a look at the difference in vertical and horizontal movement on his changeup this season:

Changeup Vertical Movemente

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Woah. He has great movement on the pitch and has added a few extra inches of both run and drop. Even the horizontal movement on his curve, which has always been Cole’s best pitch, has gotten even better. In June, he flashed 9 inches of run:

Curve Horizontal Movement

                                            Wow, look at those numbers snake up!

This increased movement makes his breaking stuff harder to hit, which in turn sets up his fastball. If you don’t know how far the pitches are going to drop or in what direction, it’s a lot harder to put the barrel of the bat on the ball with any precision.

3. Cole has changed his pitch usage

Now, with great movement and a higher velocity, Cole is clearly going to be better, right? Well, though this is probably the case, he also noticeably tweaked his pitch selection, and that may have had the largest effect. What is interesting is that after a surge in curveball usage in 2014, he’s actually backed off in 2015! Since he has found command of all his pitches, he has started to back off of that curveball and throw a nasty slider. While you can see the overall trend here, let’s focus on his increased usage to get out lefties specifically. When you look at this graph, it’s incredibly obvious that he is throwing more sliders and fourseam fastballs to lefties and laying off the curve:

Increased Slider Usage Against Lefties

Okay, Joe, he’s throwing more sliders. Why does this matter? Well, it’s counter-intuitive. It’s generally well known that pitches that move horizontally (e.g. sliders) do well against same-handed hitters, while curveballs and changeups work best against opposite-handed hitters. So your followup question should be, “well, why is he doing this, then?” Well…

4. His sliders are neutralizing lefties

Fangraphs is one of my favorite go-to sites for baseball acumen and they did an excellent job detailing Cole’s jump to “ace status” this season. You can read that on their site — but let me take a crack at it first. In short, Cole is throwing better pitches all around but he has really capitalized on his use of the slider to neutralize hitters. Left-handed hitters are actually hitting .174 against Cole’s slider and more importantly, it generates whiffs and ground balls. This has added up to really nice results.

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As you can see here, Cole has turned himself into a weapon against opposite-handed hitters. He has an astounding K% over 30, an eight-point jump from last season, and his K/BB has skyrocketed. And all of this is rather unexpected. He essentially throws two different sliders, one to fan righties and the other to fan anyone he pleases. To quote the fangraphs article: 

That first one is the traditional side-to-side slider, the pitch that right-handed batters have been chasing since the beginning of time. The second one is much more like a splitter, though, breaking downward instead of sideways. While both are sliders, the second one will work against just about any hitter, while the first one is a right-handed only weapon.

So, essentially, Cole is throwing a curve, two fastballs, a changeup and two sliders. Wow.

5. And finally…everyone around the league knows that he is good

Cole is also finally getting some respect. Check out what Terry Collins had to say after Cole shut down the Mets three weeks ago: 

“When you looked up in the ninth inning, he was still throwing 97 [mph],” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “His slider was absolutely devastating at times in the middle of the game. We knew going in he was going to be tough to hit.”

The Mets skipper clearly picked up on the fact that Cole, and his slider, are pretty darn unhittable. And when a pitcher, especially one with growing confidence, matches up against teams around the league, the added title of “ace” can certainly get in the heads of young batters. This is just another new, small advantage for the Pirates’ ace — the final nail in the coffin, if you will. 

Joe’s Conclusion

Hopefully, this article answered some Cole-related questions. He’s better this season because he is healthy, his pitches are getting better and he is pitching smarter. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s beginning to scare opposing lineups. All I can say is that it is a pleasure to watch him pitch and I am glad that I bet on his upside in fantasy baseball; he’s realizing that upside in a huge way. 

Edited by John Ray.

Which of the following pitchers was not taken in the same 2011 draft class as Gerrit Cole?
Created 6/7/15
  1. Trevor Bauer
  2. Jose Fernandez
  3. Jacob deGrom
  4. Archie Bradley

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