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This was not the Gerrit Cole we expected

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

As Gerrit Cole prepared to take the mound yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder which pitcher we were going to see: the dominant 2015 Gerrit Cole, or the good, but not elite, 2016 Gerrit Cole. To my surprise, neither of those guys showed up.

That wasn’t a problem at first, as this “Gerrit Cole” fellow cruised through four innings efficiently and effectively. In a mere 50 pitches, he retired 12 of the first 13 hitters and kicked off the fifth poised to do the same, but then the train derailed. Cole would cough up five runs, including a three-run homer Andrew Benintendi, despite having put away the first two batters.

It was one game, so I obviously do not want to jump to conclusions. But I’m curious if the vastly differently movement exhibited by this No. 45 is a taste of the future or simply an aberration. Here is how his pitch profile looked on Opening Day.

Four-seam fastball: 68.4 percent usage

As usual, Cole came threw heat that reached the upper 90s with regularity. On average, the four-seam fastball velocity was 96.4 mph, about one tick faster than it has been at any point in his career. It sounds more encouraging than it actually is, because the data being used to measure velocity is now Statcast instead of Pitch F/X. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs wrote a piece on the change, but if you want the short version, this is it:

While PITCHF/x velocity numbers were reported at a defined point along each pitch’s trajectory — usually at the 55 foot mark — so that velocity didn’t have to be calculated at every x/y point along the pitch’s path, Statcast outputs the highest velocity that Trackman records along the flight of the pitch, which, due to physics, is going to be immediately after the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand.

This resulted in most pitchers being up one MPH faster than they were previously, but it will take more time and data to conclusively know a more precise number.

Before we look at the movement on Cole’s four-seamer, it’s interesting to note that he almost exclusively threw the four-seamer against the Red Sox after mixing in the two-seamer roughly 7 percent of the time last year. This shift is more in line with his strategy from 2015, but the four-seamer looks quite different, as you can see below.

Horizontal and Vertical Movement

Season Pitch Pitches xMov zMov
Season Pitch Pitches xMov zMov
2013 FA 880 -6.5 5.4
2014 FA 1372 -7.8 6.9
2015 FA 2201 -7.4 7.1
2016 FA 1154 -6.4 8.2
2017 FA 46 -7.3 11
Total FA 5653 -7.1 7

It’s uncertain if the crazy vertical movement (zMov) is an anomaly or a new approach because as we will see shortly, it was characteristic of everything he threw yesterday.

The only other starter with this type of hard break in on a hitter and vertical movement above 11 was Drew Smyly. While that sounds like poor company to be in, Smyly’s pitch value has been better than league average for fastballs. Also, his horizontal movement is not as pronounced, and he doesn’t throw the heat that Cole does, so we are kind of in foreign territory. Nevertheless, the newfound movement on the pitch was as effective at inducing swings and grounders as his past fastballs.

Slider: 9.2 percent usage

Perhaps, the most surprising aspect of Cole’s pitch selection was his reluctance to throw the slider much, as he tossed just five or six all game after relying on it nearly 20 percent of the time the past couple of seasons. As I noted in this article, Cole needed to recapture movement on the slider if he wanted it to be something could depend on for success. Instead, he displayed the movement of a very different type of slider.

The average slider has 2.8-inch horizontal movement and 1.2 vertical movement, while Cole’s typically breaks both harder away and down on a right-handed batter. On the sliders he tossed yesterday, there was significantly more vertical movement and slightly less horizontal break. Take a closer look:

Horizontal and Vertical Movement

Season Pitch Pitches xMov zMov
Season Pitch Pitches xMov zMov
2013 SL 224 5.6 -4.2
2014 SL 286 4.2 -1.4
2015 SL 687 3.1 -0.4
2016 SL 347 2.8 1.3
2017 SL 5 2 6.8
Total SL 1549 3.6 -0.8

Also, Cole has always thrown a hard slider, but this was something altogether different — it averaged 91 MPH (about four MPH higher than the 2016 pitch f/x number) and would have been harder than any average slider out there with the exception of Noah Syndergaard’s.

Between those two factors, Cole is again entering unknown territory for sliders, and it wasn’t the elusive whiff-inducing slider we are used to seeing. If he’s going to throw it sparingly, maybe it won’t be a big deal, but the old 2015 slider was a dominant pitch for him, and this new one, if it is more than just a strange day, is going to be difficult to keep from hanging over the plate since it lacks much bite.

Changeup: 14.5 percent usage

Rather than the slider, Cole to the changeup and knuckle curve. And he must have been channeling Marco Estrada, because his changeup had significant vertical movement, at nearly 9 zMOv.

The velocity separation from his fastball was only five MPH on average, so the problem became that his changeup wasn’t fooling opposing hitters. They swung at five of the eight pitches, making contact every single time. To be fair, Cole wasn’t punished by any of the contact, so that is an improvement from last year, when the pitch was crushed to the tune of .500/.500/.636.

Knucklecurve: 7.9 percent usage

This was Cole’s most effective pitch of the day in limiting offensive production, but it still didn’t induce any whiffs. It too had more vertical movement and less horizontal break. Granted, the change was less drastic than that of his other offerings.

Closing thoughts:

Again, I don’t want to blow things out of proportion. This was just one game, so we don’t really know what it means or will mean in the grand scheme of things. But one thing we do know is that this was not the Gerrit Cole that we expected to see take the mound.