WASHINGTON — Gerrit Cole takes the ball Sunday night in World Series Game 5 with the opportunity to pitch the Houston Astros to the brink of a world championship. For five months you would have said there is no better pitcher you could pick if you had to win one game this year. But this time is different.
Cole is not the same pitcher who went 19-0 after May 22. His best fastball has gone missing, lost to the tax bill that comes with logging 242 innings and 3,803 pitches–458 more pitches than he has thrown in any year of his life.
Until he starts letting his four-seamer rip in Game 5, he will not know whether his recovery and tapered bullpen work since a loss in Game 1 will restore the pitch, or whether he’s going to have to find a way to navigate through the Washington lineup again without his best friend.
“It’s the fallout from pitching 250 innings,” Astros pitching coach Brent Strom said. “And he’s a strikeout pitcher. It’s not like he’s Mark Fidrych, throwing 250 innings by getting groundballs early in the count. Most strikeouts are going to require five or six pitches. He’s worked a lot to throw all these innings and get all these strikeouts.”
Before the series began, one of the Nationals remarked to me that Cole’s four-seam fastball “is not a swing-and-miss pitch. It’s only something like 17 percent swing and miss right now.” He was dead right.
Cole was coming off a start in American League Championship Series Game 3 against the Yankees in which he obtained only three swings and misses on his fastball–a season low–out of 67 pitches. World Series Game 1 wasn’t that much better. The Nationals whiffed at only eight of his 56 fastballs.
Strom noticed another alarming trend.
“Too many fastballs for strikes,” Strom said. “He went from something like 47 percent in the zone to pushing 70 percent. He needs to get back to that fastball that they call ‘hoppy.’”
A “hoppy” fastball is one that has extra life, or hop. It means it does not drop as much as a hitter expects the average fastball to drop. It spins so fast and true (true north-south backspin) that it holds its plane better, which causes the hitter to swing under it.
When Cole’s fastball is right, it stays slightly above the top of the strike zone and is a swing-and-miss pitch. Everything that Cole throws works off the high fastball over the plate. Every pitch is a competitive pitch out of his hand–he doesn’t throw ball-to-strike pitches, the kind that break into the strike zone. He wants to pressure the hitter into guessing whether the pitch will stay in the strike zone at the top, or break down (in the case of his curveball, slider and changeup).
But when his fastball lacks hop, it acts like an ordinary fastball – losing its plane and falling into mid-zone, where the hitter expects it. That’s exactly what happened on the home runs he gave up to Juan Soto and Ryan Zimmerman.
Cole gave up four hits on fastballs in the zone in Game 1, the most in his past 29 starts. His fastball has gone from extraordinary to simply very good. Take a look at the decline in his fastball over his past three starts:
Cole's Four-Seam Fastball Results
K's Per Game
Past 3 Starts
*Best in MLB
To restore some life on Cole’s fastball, Strom tapered Cole’s throwing between starts this time around. Cole did throw a bullpen, but Strom described it as shorter than normal and with less effort–a “touch and feel” session only. His recovery work, Strom said, has been good. This is the first time Cole will make a start after a loss since May 27. He hasn’t lost two straight starts since April 20-25.
“This game,” Houston second baseman Jose Altuve said, “is huge.”
The Astros have their swagger back, and the offense is swarming again, thanks to outscoring Washington over the past two games 12-2.
They won World Series Game 4 in a rout, 8-1, Saturday night. If you looked closely, it was the first time in recent memory the World Series resembled an American Legion game.
As Nationals starter Patrick Corbin warmed up for the first inning, George Springer, the leadoff hitter, Altuve, the No. 2 hitter, and Alex Bregman, the No. 4 hitter, all stood on the grass close to the home plate circle with bats in their hands timing the pitches of Corbin. They measured the delivery and every pitch of Corbin, simulating their at-bats.
You might commonly see this on scholastic or college fields, but rarely see such mass surveying going on in a major league ballpark. The Astros were unfamiliar with Corbin.
“Timing him,” Altuve said. “I mean, I hadn’t seen him in, I don’t know, years.”
Said manager A.J. Hinch, “That’s why I love my guys. They get after it, don’t they?”
By the time Altuve and Bregman stepped in the box, each of them had Corbin down cold. Altuve saw a first-pitch fastball and whacked it for a single. Bregman saw a first-pitch fastball and whacked it for a single. Those were two of four consecutive singles as Houston scored twice, the fanfare to what became the 8-1 thrashing of the Nationals.
“I told you,” said Altuve, who said before Game 3 that the Astros were ready to “explode.” “Now this is how we play baseball. That first inning was huge. That was the ballgame.”
Houston turned the World Series into a best-of-three in which the next two games will be started by Cole, Verlander, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. It is, on paper, everything for which a baseball fan could have hoped. But so far in a series everybody thought would be dominated by starting pitching we have seen only one quality start (by Strasburg). The starters are 3-4 with a 4.40 ERA. Not a single pitching duel has emerged in four tries.
For Houston, the season is in the hands of Cole. He has thrown more pitches this year than any pitcher over the past three seasons except the two guys who are lined up for Game 6, Verlander and Strasburg.
It is a big ask for Cole: find the hop on his fastball this deep into a season, or find another way to win the game.