About a month ago, our own Andrew Shen looked at Gerrit Cole’s early big league performances and asked a question that’s on plenty of people’s minds: Why doesn’t Gerrit Cole strike guys out when he throws 97 with ease and has a full repertoire of secondary pitches? Andrew hypothesized that Cole is predictably low and central with his fastball, thus limiting the potential to upset the timing and balance of hitters. Indeed, subsequent data from this season support this idea, and I’d like to dive in a bit further as to what may keep Cole from pitching at his potential right now.
In general, I advocate strikeouts as good for pitchers owing to the basics of fielding independent pitching—strikeouts guarantee outs. Getting outs not only makes you an effective pitcher, it also is useful for going deep into games! This strikeout-heavy approach is not a universally held view, of course, and it does not seem to be held by Cole. He told a reporter:
It’s really important to challenge guys in the zone and beat them in the zone. When you have a game where you throw 100 pitches in five innings and strike out 10, a lot of people that weren’t there write that up as a dominant outing. What is really dominating is (San Francisco pitcher) Matt Cain throwing a complete game with 100 pitches and giving up just two hits with two strikeouts.
This is exactly the same philosophy that Jordan Zimmermann has been employing (quite successfully) as well as Stephen Strasburg (with mixed results). It stresses the avoidance of falling into deep counts and walking or striking out hitters.
One important characteristic of both Zimmermann this year and Cain in his dominant stretch (2009–2012) are their lower-than-average BABIPs. Zimmermann is at .260 this year, and Cain has been at .259 since ’09. If you’re not striking guys out, after all, you have to make up those outs on defense—ideally with weak contact. Cole hasn’t gotten the hang of that yet; his BABIP is right around the league average of .293—and that's only after the .056 posting from last night's game against Washington. (More on that in a bit.)
This is where his pitch location comes in. Let’s take, for example, how left-handers handle his fastball. They’re hitting .462 (12 for 26) with a .500 BABIP and only 33% ground balls. Contrast with Zimmermann’s fastball in 2013, against whom lefties hit .239 with a .253 BABIP and 51% ground-ball rate. And Cain from 2009–2012 is at a .274 BABIP against lefties with his fastball. (His GB% is only 28%, but 15% of the balls in play are pop-ups!) The charts below show the pitch locations of all the fastballs in the samples I indicated.
As it turns out, not only are the most frequent pitch locations different for Cole, but so is his success in those zones. Cole’s BABIP in the four zones he’s thrown his fastball to most often is .769 (10/13). That’s hardly a big sample overall, but it’s not an encouraging sign. Zimmermann’s BABIP in his four most common zones is .242 and Cain’s is .280. And as you can see in the location charts, Zimmermann and Cain work in the upper half of the zone and the outside corner a lot more than Cole does. They do also work inside and low, but not as much.
Cole has succeeded in being pretty efficient with his work load. He’s only needed 4.8 pitches per out, which is pretty close to the economical Zimmermann (4.67 p/out) and well ahead of Cain (5.17 p/out). No doubt he’s being helped by a low 5.2% walk rate (1.9 per 9 innings). But being efficient isn’t the only part of pitching. It’s mostly about preventing runs in the time you spend out there. He’s also got the kind of fastball, as Jeff Sullivan and then Andrew pointed out, that can be thrown up in the zone sometimes without getting hit out all the time. Cole might even find that tinkering with the occasional high fastball would better open up the bottom of the zone for his nasty breaking pitches, making him a more complete—and fearsome—pitcher.
Last night may have seen a taste of this new approach. He used his sinker considerably more than his four-seamer against lefties and worked the outside corner. Aside from one missed sinker that wound up a home run, Cole's appearance was largely how he describes an ideal outing. To me, that shows some maturation and a bright future.