Upon bursting onto the scene in 2013, Gerrit Cole quickly established himself as the pitcher of the future for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cole used a combination of competitiveness and stuff to mow down opposing batters and show that he belonged in the majors. The worst-kept secret in Cole’s performance during that time was that he did it all more or less with just one pitch. His fastball.
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And what a fastball it was. According to his pitchf/x stats over at Fangraphs.com, Cole’s fastball averaged just a tick under 96mph, in both his two-seam and four-seam varieties. He was clocked as high as 101 on the two-seamer. It was clear to all that Clint Hurdle, Russell Martin, and Ray Searage made a concerted effort to simplify things for Cole by allowing him to do what he does best. I thought at the time that was absolutely the right approach to take, as it let the young flamethrower build up confidence and get used to major league hitters. Slowly but surely, you saw the Pirates start to add more movement to his pitches, and when he debuted an absolutely filthy slider later in the year, it led to some very baffled batters. Now as 2015 approaches, Gerrit Cole has a full arsenal of pitches at his control. Again according to FanGraphs, Cole added a curveball to his regularly-seen arsenal in 2014. This brings the count of viable pitches in his holster to five. This fact alone should really excite Pittsburgh Pirate fans. Going into the 2014 season, it was reported that the Pirates staff made a concerted effort to develop these pitches. Let’s see how their efforts panned out.
First, let’s set the baseline. Gerrit Cole threw a grand total of 2,193 pitches in 2014. This was spread out over 572 plate appearances against him.
Now let’s take a peak at Cole’s weapons.
Perhaps the most developed of Cole’s secondary pitches, the slider was thrown approximately 13.02% (286 times) in 2014. The immediate stat that jumps out with this pitch is that it accounted for a whopping 26.1% of his total strikeouts. Topping out at about 91 mph but sitting at an 86 mph average, the pitch at times just didn’t seem fair to batters. And all of this was before I mentioned that hitters only hit .181 against it all year.
Not to be outdone by the slider, Gerrit’s burgeoning curveball deserves more than a brief mention. So let’s give it its due: the curve that can come in anywhere from a knee-buckling 78.5 mph to a mind-bending 86.9 mph accounted for 22.5% of Cole’s total strikeouts. This was a brand new pitch in 2014, but you wouldn’t know it, as Cole had amazing command on it from the start, walking only 3 batters on that pitch over 70 plate appearances.
When your fastball tops out at 101, and you average 96, a well-timed change-up can make anyone look foolish. Cole has had a change-up since he came onto the scene, and he threw it with regularity in both 2013 and 2014. However, its effectiveness took a nosedive in ’14. Despite throwing it at roughly the same rate year-to-year (3,4% in 2013 to 3.9% in 2014), the change-up was hit at a much higher clip (.333) in 2014 over his 2013 total of .188. The command was there, as he did not walk a batter on that pitch. If one presses for answers, we could say that perhaps it was scouted very well between seasons, and being that the velocity stayed pretty much right on point year-to-year, this may make sense.
Again according to FanGraphs, Cole added a curveball to his regularly-seen arsenal in 2014. This brings the count of viable pitches in his holster to five. This fact alone should really excite Pittsburgh Pirate fans.
No discussion of any kind on Gerrit Cole is complete without talking about his fastball. For the sake of brevity, let’s combine all of his fastball types (two and four-seamers, cutters) under one group of fastballs. When we do that, Gerrit Cole let loose the flames of hell at a 62.6% clip. The control was there – having only walked 26 batters over 359 plate appearances, for a very good 7.2% BB rate. This improved year over year, as the fastball was hit at a .293 clip in 2013.
So where does this leave us for Gerrit Cole in 2015? For one, I see him employing his other pitches more often and at varied times in counts. The most effective of these seems to be the slider, and one wonders if the fastball will be used as more of a setup pitch than in years past. Only Ray Searage, Clint Hurdle, and the rest of the staff can answer that, but for Pirates fans I say this: don’t be surprised to see a slightly different Gerrit Cole this year.