WASHINGTON — The last box checked to pristine free agent status, Gerrit Cole walked toward the Houston Astros’ team bus with Justin Verlander, like baseball’s version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid skipping town with the loot in tow. Cole might not pitch for the Astros again, unless there is a Game 7 and he talks his way into it on two days of rest after throwing 107 pitches in Game 5 Sunday night.
Cole, 29, now has something Verlander, 36, doesn’t: a World Series win. How Cole crafted that win should tell you everything you need to know about why he will become the highest paid pitcher in the history of baseball. The sport’s best fastball pitcher won a game by getting just one strikeout with his fastball, something he had done only four times previously in his 70 starts with Houston.
“What that tells you,” said his catcher, Martin Maldonado, “is the greatest thing about Gerrit Cole is that he can strike out any hitter with any pitch at any time.”
The Astros are one win away from a second World Series win in three years, now that Cole executed the handoff to Verlander, the Game 6 starter Tuesday. Cole beat Washington, 7-1, with seven innings in which he struck out nine and permitted just three hits. The Nationals went 0-for-15 against his slider and curveball. Never before in his 202-start career, postseason included, did Cole do better than an 0-for-10 night with his breaking pitches.
“The postseason is about matchups, like in the NBA,” Houston pitching coach Brent Strom said. “We’re a high fastball pitching team, and with this [Washington] team you have some guys who can get on the high fastball and that can take you out of what you do best. And that’s when you have to find alternate ways to get people out.”
Cole provided an impressive display of pitching talent and intellect, especially considering the same team hung five runs on him only five days earlier in Game 1, his first loss in 152 days. He gave the Nationals a different, better look.
“I thought this stuff was crisper,” Cole said of the difference. “I thought we executed more pitches.”
Said Houston manager A.J. Hinch, “In the course of two games he only made a few mistakes. And they were all in Game 1.”
A free agent to be, Cole has age on his side. He also has analytics on his side because his curveball (third), four-seam fastball (fourth) and slider (10th) all rank among the top 10 in spin rates. He has body type, mechanics and durability on his side, too, having never endured a major arm injury. Sunday night, in the 249th inning of his season, and on the penultimate pitch of his game and the 3,909th pitch of his year, Cole fired a fastball at 100 miles an hour. He also has preparation, willpower and pitching smarts on his side.
And now on his side he has a World Series win and a career postseason ERA of 2.60 (better than his regular season mark of 3.22). He carries no burdens of October, the way Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Verlander (0-5 in the World Series) do.
If you’re a team that wants to win, good luck trying to explain to your fan base why you’re not prepared to give this guy the most money ever given to a pitcher (more than the $217 million the Red Sox gave David Price) with the highest average annual value (overtaking the $33 million annum to Verlander).
Asked how he will remember his two years with Cole, Strom, once a young pitcher in the New York Mets system replied, “I think just seeing his domination. And more than that, he reminds me of Tom Seaver, in terms of his thought process and unbelievable talent. I’ve seen a lot of guys with great pitching skills, but they don’t put in the time. This guy hones his craft.”
Cole began Game 5 by spraying his fastball away from its intended target. He found himself cornered in the second inning—runners at first and third with no outs—but escaped without allowing a run. He did so with his breaking pitches: a 1-and-2 curveball to strike out Ryan Zimmerman and an 0-and-2 slider to induce a double play from Victor Robles.
“There are very few pitchers in baseball who can get out of that without a run,” Hinch said. “Gerrit is one of them, because of his ability to get the punchout.”
Said Cole, referring to favorable counts, “Once we got the leverage, we went to some put-away pitches and executed them.”
Trouble, at least as it visits someone with such refined pitching skills as Cole, continued. The fastball command wobbled especially in the fourth inning, Strom said. That prompted Cole after the inning to retreat to a quiet area behind the dugout, at the base of the stairs that lead to the clubhouse, to diagnose his problem.
Cole is a pure directional pitcher. He wants his trunk square to the plate when he throws and his hand fully behind the baseball, not off to the side in the slightest. His body was tilting slightly, he figured. He also went back and reviewed what Strom calls the “copious notes” he scribbles on every hitter.
From there Cole locked in. Juan Soto spoiled his shutout with a homer off a fastball in the seventh, one of two hits off his heater. (The third hit, also by Soto, was off a changeup.)
All night long the Nationals could not touch his breaking pitches. His four-seam fastball is his Born to Run, the signature everybody pays to come see. It is the toughest fastball to hit because it has high velocity and high spin and he commands it at the top of the zone so well. It is so far and away the best swing-and-miss fastball in the game that during the regular season hitters missed it 344 times—50 more times than the fastball of anybody else. On an average night he gets 10.4 misses per game with his heater.
But Sunday night he was able to get only four swings and misses on it. Take away the best weapon of most pitchers and they are like a teenager without their phone: lost. But Cole has so many weapons and is so smart about knowing what pitches to use to exploit the vulnerabilities of each hitter that he remained in complete control of the game without a swing-and-miss fastball.
In this way, Cole is reminiscent of a prime Pedro Martinez, whose fastball, breaking ball and changeup all ranked among the best such pitches in the game. Martinez dominated because he had three put-away pitches, and he could choose what he needed depending on what was working that day and where the hitter was most vulnerable.
And yes, Seaver was that way, too. He had the weapons and he knew how to use them. Strom came up through the Mets’ system from 1970-72, so when he compares Cole, a UCLA guy, to Seaver, a USC guy, the intention is done with first-hand knowledge and gravity.
Said Hinch, “In spring training Gerrit was talking about how he didn’t care about the volume, but he wanted no bad reps, which tells me he really understands the one-pitch-at-a-time, every-pitch-matters mentality. There are no freebies.”
Cole never throws a pitch without conviction, not even playing catch with Verlander, his catch partner. They aim every throw toward the other’s right shoulder and concentrate on keeping their hand behind the ball to create such true backspin that the baseball has no wobble, cut or fade.
With Cole, there is purpose behind every pitch and every plan. Comparing him to Martinez and Seaver is heady stuff, given that those righthanders are exemplars of when elite pitching skills meet elite pitching intellect. Cole really didn’t enter this space until last season, when being around Verlander and the Astros’ understanding of pitching analytics raised him to this level.
Now he is a pitcher in full, about to be compensated royally. Any hitter, any pitch, any time, Cole is in command.
“It’s all coming together,” Hinch said. “A perfect time for us, and a perfect time for him. He’s not just a pitcher. He’s a thinking man’s pitcher.”