Reading Between The Seams: The Cole Train’s Tracks (Part 6 of 6)

  1. Part 1: The Baseball, Justin Verlander, and Denial (3/2/18)
  2. Part 2: The Ghost Of Ground Chuck (3/5/18)
  3. Part 3: Lance Lets It All Eat (3/6/18)
  4. Part 4: Keuchelangelo’s Swan Song (3/7/18)
  5. Part 5: Hall Of Fame Hunger (3/8/18)
  6. Part 6: The Cole Train’s Tracks (3/9/18)

Leading Off

Trains occupy a special spot in the collective consciousness of Houston baseball fans after almost twenty years in Minute Maid Park. Many fans – this writer included – never batted an eye when train theming was introduced in 2000 (though yes, of course, Junction Jack was objectively, empirically terrible) as a nod to the historical significance of Union Station, built in 1911 and which operated continuously through 1974 as one of the – if not the – most important railway hubs in the southern United States.

Of course, the collective memories of many of the fan base stretches back even before the origins of Minute Maid Park, even before Enron Field, way back to a time when there was an entirely different train-themed attraction in Houston.

Nolan Ryan was known for throwing straight smoke, but he also had a wicked breaking pitch.

Yes, the Ryan Express made berth in Houston for the better part of the 1980s, and no one who grew up idolizing Nolan Ryan could ever forget it.

It is against this backdrop that Gerrit Cole, also known as the Cole Train, steams into Houston – not really as a stranger looking to make a name for himself, but as the prodigal who is returning home to a place he’s never been before but which feels – what with the fifteen foot tall train on the train tracks in left field and historic Union Station set against the Houston skyline and with the Ryan Express himself sitting in the Diamond Club seats behind home plate most nights looking on – like it might all have been laid out just for him.

While the last two seasons have trended down for Gerrit Cole – he went from one of the budding superstar pitchers in the sport as recently as 2015, when he posted a 5.5 fWAR season, to a guy who struggled at times being victimized by the phenomenon across the sport that has seen home run rates spike. Particularly in 2017, when he gave up a previously-unheard of (for him) 1.37 home runs per nine innings, the long ball has been a recent thorn for him as hitters have begun hunting his fastball with greater effectiveness. The Astros, however, clearly believe he can return to his 2015 form based on the rather substantial package they surrendered in acquiring him on January 15th, and to understand at least a portion of why they might be so bullish on him, we have to start by understanding the weapons he has at his disposal.

The Arsenal

And boy…”weapons” is the appropriate term.

Cole throws two fastballs, like many pitchers, and he touched 100 miles per hour with his four seam again in 2017 while nearly touching 100 (his max velocity in 2017 on the pitch was 99.9 miles per hour, per FanGraphs) with his sinker…which is decidedly unlike most pitchers.

The problem with his fastballs – especially the sinker, which was hit to the tune of a 132 wRC+ in 2017 – is that they are not exceptionally high-spin rate pitches that get driven a little more frequently than one would like to see out of a potential top of the rotation arm. In fact, his four seam (111 wRC+) and sinker were the only two pitches in his arsenal to get hit for a wRC+ above 97 last year, even with all their velocity. Some of that is due to a lack of movement and some of it is that hitters are just hunting fastballs more successfully now – possibly thanks at least partly to the “juiced ball” theory we discussed in the opening piece of this series, as some portion of balls that were dying on the warning track in the webbing of gloves are now trickling into the first couple rows of the bleachers – but there might be yet another reason for the success against his four seamer and (especially) his sinker in 2017.

He threw those pitches most often when the batter was ahead. Here’s a look, first at his situational usage versus right-handed batters, and then against left-handed batters.

Gerrit Cole Pitch Usage vs. RHB

VS. RHB Fourseam Sinker Slider Curve Change
All Counts 46% 19% 21% 11% 3%
First Pitch 53% 19% 14% 12% 1%
Batter Ahead 50% 25% 18% 5% 2%
Even 48% 19% 18% 11% 3%
Pitcher Ahead 41% 15% 26% 14% 4%
Two Strikes 43% 15% 25% 14% 3%

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.com

Gerrit Cole Pitch Usage vs. LHB

VS. LHB Fourseam Sinker Slider Curve Change
All Counts 48% 15% 14% 12% 10%
First Pitch 55% 16% 9% 13% 7%
Batter Ahead 52% 21% 10% 4% 12%
Even 50% 14% 13% 13% 10%
Pitcher Ahead 42% 12% 20% 16% 10%
Two Strikes 45% 13% 21% 14% 7%

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.com

It is possible that a component of opposing hitters being able to better time his fastball last season than in years past might have been because hitters were sitting on the pitch in hitter-friendly counts and pouncing when the opportunity arose. Cole currently throws one of his fastballs almost 60% of the time.

Moving on to the breaking and offspeed pitches, which are things of beauty.

 

Gerrit Cole’s slider is straight-up filth. It induces ground balls (53%) and misses bats (17%) and held 2017 hitters to a batting average against it of .226, making it his least-hittable pitch in 2017. He throws the slider hard (it averaged just over a tick better than 88 miles per hour in 2017) and in a good tunneling pattern frequently – more on this in a moment. The pitch did give up more home runs than one would like to see in 2017, but not egregiously so…and that was before Brent Strom had a chance to work with Cole. Obviously Strom isn’t going to drastically overhaul anything, and he doesn’t have a magic wand, but certain things mechanically and in terms of pitch selection and tunneling are things Strommy can do to help Cole keep his most devastating pitch in the yard a little more.

One pitch that Strom (and new teammate Lance McCullers) might be able to help Gerrit Cole out a fair amount is with his curve ball, which has taken somewhat of a step backward in the last couple of years.

It’s obviously still a pretty good pitch – it still went for a swinging strike 9% of the 401 times he threw the pitch in 2017 – but it trended down quite considerably between 2016 and 2017. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the results on the pitch from one year to the next:

A Side By Side Look At Gerrit Cole’s Curve Ball, 2016 to 2017

Season Pitches BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC wRAA wOBA wRC+ LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Strikes Balls Pitches xMov zMov Mov O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr% pVAL pVAL/C
2016 190 2.0% 44.0% 0.05 .204 .220 .245 .465 .041 .370 1.2 -4.7 .204 33 37.0% 48.1% 14.8% 25.0% 0.0% 113 77 190 8.7 -4.8 10.1 38.9% 40.7% 39.5% 54.9% 79.2% 62.7% 31.1% 14.7% 1.8 1
2017 401 4.3% 30.1% 0.14 .270 .301 .416 .717 .146 .362 10.2 -1.1 .307 97 14.8% 52.5% 32.8% 30.0% 15.0% 249 152 401 5.7 -3.8 7.2 32.3% 40.4% 35.7% 63.2% 88.1% 74.8% 41.4% 9.0% -2.5 -0.6

Data courtesy of FanGraphs (sorry for the formatting on this one) 

Clearly, this should be an area of focus for Gerrit Cole, Brent Strom, and the rest of the Astros coaching staff. How to regain the lost 6.6% of swings outside the zone on the pitch? It seems that Cole threw the pitch a lot more in 2017, and was inordinately in the zone more with the pitch, which resulted in more opportunities for hard contact. Additionally, the pitch had significantly less breaking coefficient in 2017. So it was a more hittable pitch, and it was thrown more often, and it was thrown in the zone more often. Not a great combination. Fortunately, that’s not a terribly difficult combination to fix, either.

Cole’s last pitch is a change up that is actually a very good pitch for him:

It was such a good pitch for him in 2017, in a year when his other pitches seemed to get hit a lot harder than he was used to, that he nearly tripled the number of change ups thrown over previous years. From 2013 through 2016, his first four Major League seasons, Cole threw between 103 and 133 change ups each season. But in 2017, he threw the pitch 342 times for a fairly robust 10.61 usage percentage. While the pitch has usually moved pretty well for him (he posted Movement ratings of 8.3, 9.7, 9.2, and 9.7 from 2013 through 2016) it really went to another level in 2017, posting a movement rating of 11.6 (it now runs arm-side better than almost any other change up in baseball) and leading to an 11.1% Swinging Strike rate with an out-of-zone swing rate of 38.8%, which beat his previous career-best mark on the pitch by almost 3%.

It isn’t just the movement or the chasing done by batters that has made this pitch so effective recently for Cole, however. He also throws it at nearly the same (extremely high) velocity as his slider, both of which hover at 8-10 miles per hour slower than his paired-up fastball and sinker. Furthermore, he throws the change and the slide piece from the same tunnel action consistently. From new-favorite twitter follow Rob Friedman, let’s take a look at a change up-slider sequence from Cole this Spring in camp with the Astros:

Obviously nasty, yes? But look again at the exact same sequence, this time with the tunneling circle on it:

This is next-level pitching, where movement coefficient and velocity and pitch tunneling all meet in a perfect storm of “Go sit down, son”.

The Road Ahead

Overlooked too often with Cole is his cerebral nature, as well as his ability to defend his position well:

That cerebral nature, and his athleticism and ability to field his position, will serve him well with such a forward thinking, data-driven team like the Astros. Being such a good fielder will allow the Astros greater confidence in employing their world-leading number of infield shifts in support of him, and his intelligence and coachability are reportedly already paying dividends in camp.

The biggest thing for Cole to try in an effort to get hitters off his fastball more this season will likely revolve around throwing fewer fastballs and sinkers in general. Again, he threw those pitches almost 60% of the time last year, especially when he was behind in the count and the hitters were able to sit on it. Much like Lance McCullers, who throws his curve ball more often than his fastball, Cole should probably look to establish himself more frequently in the middle range of his velocity, with the slider and the change up in the high eighties, when he can. This allows him to change velocities in two directions – by dropping the velocity in throwing a curve ball, or in dialing it up in the mid or upper nineties with one of his power pitches. Also, picking more advantageous counts in which to pump that fastball in will probably help as well.

One really cool, exciting aspect of adding such a dominant fastball to a starting stable that’s already chock full of overpowering fastballs? If you take the five starting pitchers profiled in this series – even including Dallas Keuchel and his most frequent version of the sinker/two seam fastball, which sits around 89 miles per hour – and average all of their fastballs in 2017, their average fastball velocity comes out to 94.4 miles per hour.

Only 22 starters in all of baseball (minimum 140 innings pitched) had a better average velocity than 94.4 in 2017, and the Astros average that velocity as a team in the starting rotation as it projects right now.

Truly exciting times are ahead this year on the mound for the Houston Astros. Buckle up, boys and girls.