Gerrit Cole Starts Strong against Washington
But is he moving differently this year? Could it hurt his performance?
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Last night’s game between the Yankees and Nationals marked Opening Day for the 2020 season and the game that followed was almost a perfect metaphor for 2020 itself. It was a game where Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer were facing off, so, naturally, 3 runs were scored in the 1st inning, and the game was called after the Yankees batted in the 6th inning due to rain and lightning. It was almost a perfect introduction to how weird this 60-game sprint of a season is going to be.
Gerrit Cole picked up right where he left off last season, throwing five innings with five strikeouts and one HR allowed. If he continues that type of success this season, he’ll be just fine for the Yankees who locked him into a nine-year-$324 million free-agent deal this winter. But, having watched Cole with the Astros a lot the last few seasons, something looked just a tad off last night. I decided to dig and see if there was anything that I could spot in either Cole’s delivery or approach that was abnormal.
I want to be very clear that I am not sounding any warning bells on Cole. This is based on just one game this season, but there were some interesting notes from his plate discipline page on Baseball Savant. Cole’s velocity was as good as ever and that will always give him a strong floor for success. But if he is moving differently or less efficiently, he may not be the best pitcher in the league as he had a claim to be in 2019.
Cole’s Zone % fell from 52% in 2019 to 43% in 2020, and he only threw a first-pitch strike 50% of the time against Washington while his overall strike rate of 61% was below his 67% rate in his two seasons with Houston. These are a few metrics that can help measure command and how accurate a pitcher is around the zone. With his pitch characteristics staying stable from 2019 to 2020, a slight change in mechanics could be the cause of this very slight and small sample of decreased pitches in the zone.
Comparing a Cole fastball from last night to a random fastball from 2019, there were no significant changes in Cole’s mechanics or how he was pitching. However, there were two small changes that I thought were interesting and may have an impact.
The first thing I noticed came as Cole was midway through his windup and transferring his weight from his back hip to explode forward. From what I can see, he was more loaded onto his back hip against the Nationals, whereas with the Astros he was a little more straight up. You can see at this point where his throwing arm is rising and he’s about to rotate to the plate, his knee is bent at an angle of 100 degrees against Washington versus 110 degrees from 2019. This is something that I don’t think will be a big deal as I believe it has more to do with weight transfer and how hard he’s throwing rather than his location. With his velocity remaining constant from year-to-year, it’s likely nothing.
While a slight change in his loading phase may not be an issue, a different arm slot could pose different problems. Cole looked to be flying open more against the Nationals than he did in 2019. With the Astros, he was straighter up at his release and didn’t fly open as much with just a 50-degree angle separating his arm from the center of his back. In his Yankee debut, his head consistently drifted towards his glove side and his arm dropped in response, opening up to a 63-degree angle of separation between his arm and back. This impacted his release point and caused him to miss up and in against righties, particularly with his fastball.
Cole threw 488 (15%) of his 3360 pitches in zone 11 (up and in against RHH) in 2019; 343 (71% and 10% overall) of those 488 were four-seam fastballs. Against Washington, he put 19 (25%) of his 75 pitches in zone 11, 18 of which were fastballs. Again, we’re working with a small, one-game sample size for 2020, but that’s a striking difference. I think that has a lot to do with how Cole is opening up early, leading his release point to drop and creating a little more arm side run on his 4-seam fastball.
Brooks Baseball’s reports corroborate that assessment. Cole released all three of his pitches lower against the Nationals than he did in his time with the Astros.
Cole only used his four-seam fastball, slider, and curveball against the Nationals and each pitch saw a significant decrease in release point. Last year, each one of those pitches was released at a point of about 5’10” (converting 5.84 to a measurement) versus 5’8” for his slider/curveball and about 5’7” for his four-seam. These are small differences, 15 degrees, and 2 or 3 inches, but that can make a huge difference in how a pitcher performs and how his pitches move.
The change, intentional or otherwise, didn’t adversely affect Cole against the Nationals and I’m skeptical that there will be any long-term impact (he is still Gerrit Cole and can throw 98–100 mph as needed, giving him a very solid floor), but it’s something that I’m going to keep an eye on this season. Gerrit Cole will still be one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball, but a lowered release point could make it difficult for him to remain the best.
*Stats from Baseball Savant, FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball-Reference*