What in the world is going on with Gerrit Cole?

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Monday June 12th, 2017

One of the most interesting categories of MLB players is mid-career starting pitchers. They’ve all experienced some success and wouldn’t have made it into the middle of a lengthy career without proving themselves capable of holding down a spot in a rotation. As pitchers grow older, however, even the best ones need to make adjustments. That’s what makes starters who have logged four to six seasons in the majors so compelling.

Such is the case for Gerrit Cole. Now in his fifth season, Cole has not reached the full potential he had while barreling his way through the Pirates farm system. Cole was the first overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, and was a consensus top-10 prospect when he made his MLB debut in 2013. With that sort of pedigree, and two years of significant minor league success, there was reason to believe Cole would become one of the aces of the following decade.

It hasn’t worked out that way yet. Cole has been a very good pitcher, amassing a 3.23 ERA, 2.98 FIP and 1.21 WHIP with 538 strikeouts in 579 1/3 career innings heading into this season. He just hasn’t been a consistently great one. He made one All-Star team in his first three full seasons and showed up in the top 10 in Cy Young voting just once. He dealt with injuries in 2014 and 2016, but his performance has been uneven when healthy, too. It has been a good, if slightly disappointing, career to this point.

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The disappointment is growing this year. Cole is on pace for the worst season of his career; through 12 starts, he has a 4.83 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 1.34 WHIP and 66 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings. Now in his fifth season at 26 years old, Cole seems at a crossroads. He’s still young enough to find another level and establish himself as a true ace. Failing that, he’s most likely to remain the solid No. 2-style starter he has been during his first four seasons. Of course, there’s always the chance that he turns in the opposite direction, with 2017 serving as the beginning of his regression years. Not everyone can flag a ride at the crossroads.

This column is not going to make any sweeping declarations about Cole’s future. Rather, it will look at one major adjustment he has made this season. Through the first four years, Cole’s pitch usage remained stable. There would be fluctuations from year to year, but, generally, he favored his four-seam fastball as his foundational pitch, and his slider as his out pitch, with the sinker, knuckle-curve and changeup all mixed in to varying degrees. Below are his pitch usage rates by season from 2013 through 2016, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. We prefer Statcast here, especially since it’s now the official arbiter of all things statistical for the MLB, but Brooks’s numbers here check out with Statcast’s, and they’re easier to present in one table.

There’s one big shift this season. Cole still prefers his four-seam fastball to his sinker, and still favors the slider as his go-to breaking ball. The change, however, is his changeup. Cole is throwing it 13.4% of the time this season after never throwing it for more than 7.5% of his pitches in any previous season.

It’s not immediately clear why Cole has fallen in love with his changeup. The best use of the pitch is typically to negate platoon advantage, but Cole had limited lefties to a .253/.320/.369 slash line over the first four years of his career. This season, with the change a larger part of his arsenal, they’re hitting .299/.327/.598 with 10 homers and 13 doubles in 171 plate appearances.

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Cole’s results with the changeup have been no better than average. It has an 11.4% whiff rate, which isn’t special for what is supposed to be a swing-and-miss offering. In fact, among pitchers who have thrown at least 150 changeups this season, Cole has the fifth lowest whiff-per-swing. Hitters are 11-for-40 when putting the changeup in play, with five of those hits going for extra bases.

The pitch looks even worse when you isolate for left-handed batters. Cole has held them to a .226 batting average, but when they make contact they usually make him pay. The .226 isolated slugging percentage against Cole’s changeup is on par with Anthony Rizzo’s season-long ISO. To be fair to Cole, even the best changeups get hit hard when they’re put in play. That’s simply the nature of the pitch, no matter who’s throwing it. The issue, however, is that the best changeups also produce far more whiffs and groundouts than Cole’s has, and, furthermore, he didn’t need the pitch in the past.

Command isn’t really an issue, as demonstrated by this zone profile from Statcast. Cole has been able to keep his changeup down in the zone, exactly where any pitcher wants it.

Cole gets about a 7–8 mph differential between his changeup and fastball, which isn’t ideal, but still a wide enough spread to mess with a hitter’s timing. No, neither command nor velocity can explain Cole’s changeup problem.

The issue appears to be that it just isn’t a very good pitch. It can be effective at times, as it was here getting Joey Votto to whiff for strike three.

All too often, however, it looks more like this.

Cole’s changeup usage isn’t even close to being at the root of his struggles this season. It is noteworthy, though, that a pitch he never relied on in the past has a larger presence this season, even though it hasn’t been very good. His usage of the pitch will be something to monitor for the rest of the season.

Pitchers to watch this week

Jacob deGrom, Mets

DeGrom’s woeful season hit what the Mets hope is rock bottom last week, when he surrendered eight runs on 10 hits in four innings in a loss to the Rangers. It was the third time this season he allowed at least five runs in a start, which is equal to the number of times he has held opponents to one or zero runs. Over deGrom’s last two outings, he has been knocked around for 15 runs on 18 hits, including four homers, in eight innings, raising his ERA more than a run and a half in the process. He now owns a 4.75 ERA, 3.91 FIP and 1.44 with 94 strikeouts in 72 innings. He has about as challenging as possible a week ahead, with the Cubs on Monday and Nationals on Saturday.

Mike Foltynewicz, Braves

Foltynewicz has been deGrom’s opposite in his last two starts. He has tossed seven scoreless innings in both of his two most recent outings, allowing a total of six hits while striking out 14 and walking four. He lowered his ERA nearly a full run to 3.48, and while his 4.19 FIP and 1.28 WHIP both suggest he has been a bit fortunate, his overall body of work deserves the benefit of the doubt. Foltynewicz starts twice this week, taking on the Nationals in Washington on Monday and the Marlins at home on Sunday.

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Jimmy Nelson, Brewers

Nelson has been electric in his last three starts, totaling a 1.71 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 21 innings. He has notched quality starts in five of his last six trips to the mound, and now sports a 3.45 ERA, 3.15 FIP and 1.27 WHIP, with 71 strikeouts against 17 walks in 70 1/3 innings. Of all the encouraging developments in Milwaukee this season, Nelson’s leap may have the largest ripple effects. The team has done a great job acquiring young offensive talent over the last few years, and Nelson is showing that he can be a rock in one of the first few spots in the rotation. He has a favorable week lined up, drawing the Cardinals on Monday ad Padres on Sunday.

Rick Porcello, Red Sox

Porcello leads the majors in four stats. Two of those, starts and total batters faced, are largely the function of being healthy and going at least six innings in almost every start. The others, losses and hits allowed, while not a direct reflection of the way a pitcher has thrown the ball, certainly aren’t positive. The defending AL Cy Young Award winner has had a rough go of it this year, racking up a 4.46 ERA, 4.02 FIP and 1.49 WHIP in 80 2/3 frames. He has been bad lately, allowing at least four runs in three of his last five starts, and at least eight hits in all of them, without completing seven innings in any of them. In fact, it has been more than a month since he has made it through seven innings, a streak of six starts without doing so. Porcello is scheduled to take the ball on Monday against the Phillies, and Saturday in Houston against the hottest team in baseball.

Yu Darvish, Rangers

Darvish is giving up a ton of home runs this season—an odd and unexpected tendency for one of the game’s more feared pitchers. Darvish has already surrendered 12 jacks in 82 innings this year. He gave up the same number in 100 1/3 innings last year, and 13 in 144 1/3 frames in 2014. His HR/9 is up to 1.32, and his HR/FB ratio is 15.2%, both of which would be career highs.

Darvish has watched at least one of his pitches sail over the fences in nine of his 13 starts this season, and he has allowed multiple homers in the same game three times. He’s slated for two starts this week, both of which are against teams that can rake. The Astros, who Darvish faces on Monday, are tied for second in the majors with 99 homers. His opponent over the weekend, the Mariners, aren’t anywhere near as dangerous top to bottom, but feature three dangerous power hitters—Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager—in the middle of their order.

Prospect Watch

Sean Newcomb, Braves

Newcomb was in the Prospect Watch last week, and days later the Braves promoted him to the majors. Did Braves GM John Coppolella read last week’s column before giving Newcomb the call? All we can say for sure is we don’t know. What we do know, however, is that, regardless of the cause, Coppolella is happy Newcomb is in Atlanta.

Newcomb looked great in his MLB debut, allowing one unearned run on four hits in 6 1/3 innings against the Mets, striking out seven while walking two. He took a tough-luck loss, but that didn’t sour the night too much. Newcomb should be in the majors to stay.

Newcomb remains widely available in fantasy leagues, but that should end soon. The 24-year-old was one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, and he’s set to make about 16 to 18 more starts this season. With his fastball-curveball combo, he’s going to be capable of missing bats at the highest level. Even if that’s all he provides with any consistency in his rookie year, it will make him a player worth owning in all formats.

GIF of the Week

Raisel Iglesias needed seven pitches in a perfect, two-strikeout ninth inning to set down the Cardinals last Thursday, earning his 12th save of the season. In case your math isn’t great, a seven-pitch inning that includes two strikeouts means that Iglesias had two three-pitch strikeouts, and got the third out on the first pitch of the at-bat. That’s as dominant as it gets. Here’s one of those seven pitches, a strike-three slider to Stephen Piscotty that froze him after two straight 97-mph fastballs.

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