Some pitchers own a no-hitter. Some own awards and records. A very few own entire years.
When it comes to narrative copyrights, Bob Gibson owns ’68, Orel Hershiser owns ’88 and Madison Bumgarner owns ’14. With the way Gerrit Cole is throwing the baseball–Thursday night, last week, the past five months–he is submitting an application to own ’19.
And he is doing it in what has become a disappearing art form: he is flat-out bullying hitters with an old-fashioned, let-it-eat, country-hardball four-seam fastball.
Cole won his second stellar start in the ALDS Thursday, 6-1, over Tampa Bay to advance Houston to the American League Championship Series. He did it with a season-high 68 four-seam fastballs over eight innings. The fastballs averaged 97.7 mph and topped out at 100.
Now the New York Yankees are up next in the ALCS to try to do something that hasn’t been done by 16 different opponents spanning 24 starts, 162 1/3 innings and 140 days: beat Gerrit Cole.
Think about what that means: Cole is undefeated over the equivalent of an entire qualified season. Since he last lost a game May 22, Cole is 18-0 with a 1.61 ERA.
Eleven years ago, the Yankees used their No. 1 draft pick on Cole, but he spurned them to attend UCLA. Now he is lined up to pitch ALCS Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, his second start there, and first since 2014, in what promises to be an epic series between the 107-win Astros and 103-win Yankees.
It is difficult to imagine this series will not need all seven games. And if it does go to Game 7, guess who is lined up for that one: Gerrit Cole.
Major league hitters this year batted .267 against four-seam fastballs–15 points above the overall average. Growing up in an era filled with velocity, they can time jet planes. This postseason has been a monument to spin, a turning away from the fastball. But ever since Cole was traded to Houston before the 2018 season, he has become of the most wicked four-seam monsters in the game.
Under pitching coach Brent Strom, the Astros took the two-seam groundball specialist in Pittsburgh and changed how he threw a baseball.
“I had tried to pound righthanded hitters in in the previous year a lot with the two-seam,” Cole told me earlier this year. “I always tried to pound down to create groundballs. But with the way the league acted with the baseballs and the way hitters changed their swing path, that two-seam was getting elevated as opposed to getting crushed to the third baseman.
“My first four years in the league we were just destroying people with two-seams at the bottom of the zone and having good success. But that ended up being one-dimensional and the transition here was like at the perfect time.”
Strom took away Cole’s two-seamer and taught him the keys to backspinning the baseball to let the four-seamer ride. “Step one: make it go straight and backspin it,” Cole said.
Keep the hand directly behind the baseball. Keep the trunk straight. Upon ball release, let the left arm just relax and “roll.”
Cole throws his four-seamer with such high spin and such true spin (no wobble) that it fights gravity and doesn’t follow the pitch plane hitters anticipate. So they swing under it or pop it up. Most every pitch Cole throws–fastball, changeup, slider, curve–is on the plate out of his hand before they ride, sink or cut. They are all “competitive” pitches a hitter cannot dismiss. The four-seamer is especially difficult because Cole doesn’t have to guide it to a corner for it to be successful.
Said Cole, “Justin [Verlander] was like, ‘I think you can try to locate too much sometimes and you should just throw not to a general area, but if you attack the zone to a quadrant you’re probably going to get at least a foul ball, and that’s a good pressure pitch.’”
Cole is a throwback with his velocity and tenacity. His highest average velocity in any inning this year was the eighth inning: 97.0 mph. Thursday night he hit 99.6 in the eighth inning with pitch number 103–the hardest pitch he has thrown that late in a game all year.
But it’s not just about the fastball. His slider and curveball have exceptional bite. His changeup is good enough because hitters are geared for the fastball. Throwing all of them on the plate is what makes Cole special. From Strom he also learned the concept of “tunnels”–keeping different pitches on the same path to the plate for as long as possible before they ride, run or tilt in different directions.
“I’ve incorporated some of the tunnels because now I know what pitches work off one another,” he said. “And the four-seam at the top makes all my breaking balls better, and not necessarily the ones for strikes. They’re over the plate, so immediately out of the hand the hitter has to decide if it’s a strike. If it’s at the top, even if it’s a ball and it’s over the plate, you’re still putting pressure on them. You’re making them make decisions so you can get a read. When it’s off both corners, like down an in, it doesn’t register [with the hitter]. It doesn’t put any pressure on them. They forget where that pitch comes from.”
And so the entire AL season winds up just where it was pointing to all along: Astros vs. Yankees for the pennant. This is the epic series baseball deserves and needs. This is the chance for Cole, already the singular breakout star of this postseason, to make this year his own.