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Gerrit Cole is learning his changeup

The Pirates ace is as physically gifted as they come, but he’s making a leap to true pitching artist this season, and his changeup is behind the improvement.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates ace Gerrit Cole is about as good a pitcher as you could hope to get with a number one overall draft pick. No, he’s not quite Clayton Kershaw (who was picked seventh anyway), but he’s certainly better than Brian Bullinger or Luke Hochevar, and I’d put him in the same basket as Stephen Strasburg or David Price. With a career 3.25 ERA, 3.03 FIP, a strikeout rate of 22 percent versus a walk rate of 6 percent and 13 fWAR thus far in his career, Cole is fulfilling all the promise he showed at UCLA.

But the key to any pitcher is to become just that — a pitcher, not just a thrower. It’s a fine difference, but the pitcher is more an artist, a thinker, almost an intellectual, whereas the thrower merely dominates with brute force. Former college teammate Trevor Bauer encapsulates the mentality of the pitcher to the utmost (even if the results aren’t as good as you’d want), while early Justin Verlander or a young David Price were preeminent throwers. It’s a sign of youthful hubris and simple overconfidence in one's’ abilities that leads to that (and to be fair, when the abilities in question are as good as Verlander’s or Price’s, being a thrower can work just fine). But Cole clearly wants to be more than just a thrower. To that end, he’s been remodeling how he attacks hitters coming into this season, leading to a drastic change in his tactics. Yes, Gerrit Cole may have found his changeup.

The changeup is considered by many to be the best pitch in baseball, in large part because it’s counterpart, the fastball, is the most used pitch in baseball. The Tampa Bay Rays have built an entire pitching culture around the change, demanding its minor leaguers learn one if they hope to advance. Johan Santana rode one to a Cy Young. Pedro Martinez singlehandedly made it famous in the Dominican Republic. With the ever-increasing velocities across baseball forcing batters to gear up and swing earlier and earlier just to catch up, a well-timed cambio can be crippling.

Cole, as a baseball player who’s been doing this his whole life, knows this. He’s always had a changeup, throwing it anywhere between 3.8 and 7.5 percent of the time prior to this season. But that’s simply not enough usage to have it be really effective. For a guy with such an electric fastball, a change would be much more useful than the slider, in a vacuum. Since Cole features the fastball so much (about 58% of the time between the four-seam and sinker) having something that is like it, but not, would be killer. He happens to have a good slider, but to get to that next level he’s going to need that change of pace. Luckily, the Pirates hurler looks like he’s learning how to deploy the changeup, and he’s using it more often as a result (13.4 percent so far this season).

Take, for example, this at-bat against Anthony Rizzo last Tuesday. It was the third batter of the game, and Cole had already shown a change to Kris Bryant, the batter immediately before Rizzo. To open the at-bat, Cole showed Rizzo this:

That’s a 97mph fastball on the outside corner. Regardless of whatever else you have in your repertoire, this is a perfect pitch. The frame job helped, but that was a beautiful pitch regardless. If you can do that semi-consistently, the rest of your pitches could be rancid garbage and you’d still have a sub-4 ERA.

But Cole didn’t dot the corner with a fastball on the next pitch. He did this:

Rizzo thought he saw the same pitch. He’s a good hitter who is annihilating fastballs this year, and facing Cole he’s probably expecting lots of fastballs, especially early in counts and early in the game. Instead, he swung hard at a changeup and missed by a mile, and a pitch later was headed back to the bench as a strikeout victim. The deception of that change made it all happen. Incidentally, the next pitch was a slider in roughly the same location, which would have worked off the fastball down and away anyway. But in conjunction with the fastball AND a 90mph change with a bit of arm-side fade, the slider was even better, and made Rizzo look the fool.

That above sequence highlights what Cole has been able to do this year that he couldn’t do as well a year ago: locate the change consistently down in the zone. The pitch needs the depth of the zone to work in, to help to deceive the hitter and not turn into a hanging meatball. The below graph demonstrates the leap Cole has made in this respect:

It’s a work in progress of course; that’s the point of this piece. It’s not always perfect like that Rizzo at-bat earlier. He floats them from time to time, but there is a concerted drive to get the ball down when thrown. Those pitches in the middle of the zone can be dangerous, which is why this is going to be a very interesting experiment for Cole. Floating changeups turn into home runs very easily. That game against the Cubs he did happen to let a couple get a way from him, like this one in a Kris Bryant plate appearance:

One pitch that had Bryant’s eyes wide. Whether because Bryant was looking fastball (since it’s still Gerrit Cole) or he simply just missed it, Cole was the lucky one here. That pitch should have been mashed. Cole got the tough-luck loss at the end of the game, but in this moment, and because he’s featuring the changeup so much more than he used to, he caught Bryant off-guard.

It’s a good pitch, or it can be. His fastball will always be the bread and butter of his career, but the change could be Cole’s raspberry preserves. Though it’s still early in the season, his change has already been worth +4.72 runs per 100 pitches by FanGraphs’ Pitch Values, ostensibly meaning it’s his best pitch so far this year. Pitching is all so contextual, and much of that value comes from Cole’s other pitches — the dotted fastball that makes his changeup so deceptive — but that figure still means that his changeup-fastball combination is working well. That’s a flip of the script from the past; including this season, Cole’s changeup for his career has been rated -0.70 runs per 100 pitches. For context, last year Kyle Hendricks’ change was rate at +2.71 runs per 100 pitches, which was the best among qualified pitchers. So this level almost certainly won’t hold for Cole over a full season, but it gives us a hint that, maybe, he’s taking a big step forward with his repertoire. As good as he already is, this is a truly exciting prospect.