Gerrit Cole pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates for five years. There were good, great, and terrible times. By January of 2018, the front office was done trying to figure Cole out and so he was traded to the Houston Astros. Many talking heads and fans thought the Pirates were moving Cole too early, fully expecting a bounce back. Many more thought that Gerrit Cole would finally turn into the starter that his first round pedigree suggested he’d become once he was traded.
Now, eight months later, Cole has become a star and the Pirates are struggling to stay at .500. Pittsburgh was always going to struggle to be good this season but Cole’s extreme success was not guaranteed. Gerrit has 5.4 WAR, a 2.73 ERA, 2.57 FIP, 12.35 K/9, in 164.2 IP. Other than the innings pitched, those are all career highs or just shy of his 2015 season. Cole has become a different pitcher in Houston, a better pitcher, an ace. Cole has become the pitcher that the Pirates hoped he would for them. He didn’t flourish under their guidance and it’s time to see how the Astros fixed Cole and how the Pirates can learn from their mistakes.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are fairly well known for being a pitch to contact team. They stress fastballs, especially two-seamers and sinkers, in an attempt to get quick outs on the ground. This strategy was extremely effective back in 2012-15. However, the hitters struck back and have become quite proficient at hitting the sinker and low ball. Pitchers have struck back by throwing more breaking pitches and elevating fastballs. The Pirates haven’t adjusted too much to this. The Astros have and they have brought Cole into the fold.
The fastball has become an even more important part of Cole’s arsenal. However, the Astros have basically trashed the sinker and two-seamer. Instead, they are having Cole focus on his breaking pitches. He’s throwing his knuckle curve and slider at career-high levels. Gerrit’s changeup has also been left in the dust in favor for his much better breaking pitches. Given his results this year, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t miss it. Cole’s slider and fastball were always his most talked about pitches as he came up, so it’s really not a surprise that he’s been more successful as he’s thrown his best pitches more.
In order to combat the launch angle revolution, the Astros have preached throwing high fastballs to get a whiff or easy pop-up. There isn’t really a better example of this effect than by comparing Cole’s fastball locations between 2017 and ‘18.
While fastballs down the middle isn’t a very good idea normally Cole has the velocity to blow it by hitters.
With the Pirates, Cole would throw the fastball to get crap contact. Now with the Astros, he’s throwing it to challenge hitters. Take note on how little Cole throws the fastball out of the zone and in the bottom third in 2018. He’s pitching more frequently up the zone. Not every pitcher could get away with this, but Cole can and it’s effective. His fastball has never gotten more strikeouts or limited contact.
Remember that big sticky substance controversy back in April about the Astros pitching staff and their suspicious bump in RPMs? True or not, we need to talk about it now. Cole has seen a consistent increase in RPMs across all his pitches this season.
Whatever the reason, Cole’s RPMs have bumped up. The important thing to note is that the fastball has seen a serious increase. When a fastball has a higher RPM, it’ll stay up longer and appear to “rise”. The lack of a “normal” break in the fastball causes hitters to whiff or mishit the ball. Perhaps not coincidentally, his ability to make hitters miss has increased.
He’s especially gotten good at making hitters miss within the zone.
Combined with the high location, a rising fastball is extremely hard to hit and could explain the increase in whiffs.
STRIKEOUTS OR CONTACT?
When batters start swinging through air, the strikeouts are going to pile up. Cole is currently second in the majors in K/9 and strikeouts. This is an extremely drastic increase from his Pittsburgh days.
The strikeouts aren’t even coming from one particular pitch.
The strikeouts have come out a small cost. Hitters are making harder contact than ever before. Cole has given up a hard hit rate of 41.7%, putting him in the bottom 2% of the league with pitchers like Homer Bailey. Gerrit is also giving up more fly balls than ever before, something the Pirates always tried to avoid.
Yet, it’s not making a big impact. Gerrit can afford to give up some hard contact in the air when the trade-off is sitting down more hitters who never even get a chance to put the ball in play.
Finally, we have arrived at perhaps the most drastic change for Gerrit Cole. It is shocking that it’s not the K rate isn’t the most drastic. The Pirates were one of the first teams to utilize the shift frequently. It helped their groundball oriented approach and turned a mediocre rotation into a good one. In 2017, Pittsburgh still shifted with Gerrit Cole on the mound.
Above is a heat map of the positioning for the Pirates when Gerrit Cole was pitching. They shifted on 13.2% of Cole’s plate appearances. Below is the heat map for this Cole in 2018.
Houston is much more aggressive with their shifts, especially in the outfield. The Astros have made Cole the eighth most shifted pitcher at 51.8%! More than half of the batters facing Cole have to see a shift. If the ‘stros shift this much it better bear results, and it does. In 2017, Cole had an average of .290 against the infield shift. This season: .189. 189!!! The Astros are doing a much more effective of job utilizing the shift this year than the Pirates ever did with Cole. On the rare occasion that Cole doesn’t get a strikeout, the hitter is out due to the shift. The combo of strikeouts and heavy shifting have been deadly on hitters.
What can the Pirates learn from this?
Cole was always supposed to become an ace and now he has, just not for the team that drafted him. The Pirates have a couple of chances to learn from this mistake, with pitchers like Mitch Keller and Jameson Taillon. First off, the Pirates should start using more breaking pitches. They have some players with some killer breaking stuff: Taillon’s curve, Chris Archer’s slider, Felipe Vazquez’s slider. Let the pitchers use their best pitches. It doesn’t seem like rocket science but all major league teams used to stress fastballs before your best breaking pitch. Using the breaking stuff should lead to more chases, less contact, and set up a chance at the strikeout.
Which brings us to the second change the Pirates should make: chasing the K. This whole article has basically shown that switching pitch to contact for strikeouts can lead to great results. Now not every pitcher has the arsenal to do this. Don’t expect them to change anything Trevor Williams has done over the last month (leads the NL in ERA since the All-Star break). A guy like Trevor can’t hit 95 and blow away hitters. Pitchers like Archer and Taillon can (although Archer is a different case). If the Pirates let their strikeout pitchers be strikeout pitchers instead of pigeon-holing every starter into a ground ball focus, they could find some more success.
Increasing shift usage could also be helpful. There really isn’t any doubt that the Astro infield defense is better than the Pirates. That greater ability may play a part in their shift success. The Astros shift more than anyone else in the league and they have the best pitching results in the league. Researching how Houston uses its defense should help the Buccos.
The Pirates have a couple great, young pitchers right now. Mitch Keller looks like a stud in AAA and Jameson Taillon has been very good despite some struggles. They both have strong fastballs with velocity and a very good breaking pitch. Just like Gerrit Cole when he was coming up through the system. They aren’t the same pitchers as Cole but that doesn’t mean the lessons can’t be transferred. Learning from their mistakes with Cole could go a long, long way to sending Pittsburgh to October glory.
**All charts are from baseballsavant.com. Stats came from baseballsavant.com and fangraphs.com**