Gerrit Cole and the Wizard of Stros

Did the Astros win the Gerrit Cole trade? The easy answer: it all depends. Depends upon the development of the young players the Astros lost. But mostly, it depends upon whether or not the Gerrit Cole who pitches in Minute Maid this summer is like the All Star Gerrit Cole of 2015, or if he is just the so-so Gerrit Cole of the last two seasons. If the latter, then the Astros probably lose.

I for one opposed acquiring Cole at the trade deadline last year because I assumed he would continue to pitch for the Astros like he was pitching for the Pirates. Therefore he would not have been much of an upgrade. Then again, I opposed getting Justin Verlander too and see how that worked out?

Judging from the comments here at TCB most Astros fans approve the trade and seem to assume the resurrection of Gerrit Cole. And there is one good reason to make that assumption. We have the Miracle Man of the mound, the magician of mechanics, the Bill Nye Science Guy of spin rates, the Savior of lost arms and hopeless careers. We have Brent Strom, the Great and Powerful Wizard of Stros.

OK. I know. If there was really a Wizard who could cast a spell and turn Tony Sipps into Cy Youngs, then we wouldn't need to pay guys named Cole or Verlander. On the other hand, if coaches had no impact on players' performances, they wouldn't have paying jobs either.

Every coach is expected to add value to the players he coaches. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. For Strom it seems to work more often than it doesn't, and more often than it does for most other coaches. Maybe I don't know enough about other coaches but in a minute we will look at what he has done for a number of Astros.

Of course, how do we know how much of a players' success or failure is due to coaching? There are innumerable factors involved besides coaching input that could be at play. Correlation is not causation.

That said, under Brent Strom's tutelage a remarkable number of pitchers with little or no prior success or pedigree have become very valuable and much improved assets; like All Stars Dallas Keuchel, Will Harris, Chris Devenski, or merely damn good guys like Collin McHugh,Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. All have credited "Strommie" to one degree or another. article here

On the chart below I have listed seven players who have a major league history with coaches other than Brent Strom and have compared their performances with and without Strom. The last one, Francis Martes, is a separate case. (more later) I don't believe there is any value in judging Strom's success against players he and he alone has coached in the Big Leagues because no matter how good or bad any one example might be, say Lance McCullers or Michael Feliz, we have no information indicating whether another coach would have done a better or worse job.

The first four on the list are Strom's well known success stories. In the interest of balance, the next two are the only two pitchers I could think of that have regressed under Strom. If there are others let me know. Vince Velasquez is included to see how one of Strom's prodigal children has performed without the Master's guidance.

Charlie Morton, pre-Strom 4.54 4.1 1.441 9.6 3.4 6.3 0.7
Charlie Morton, Strom 3.62 3.46 1.193 7.7 3.1 10 0.9
Will Harris, pre-Strom 4.26 3.16 1.349 9.4 2.7 9.7 0.8
Will Harris, Strom 2.3 3.11 0.97 6.5 2.2 9.4 0.9
Dallas Keuchel, pre-Strom (2013) 5.15 4.25 1.536 10.8 3 7.2 1.2
Dallas Keuchel, Strom (2014) 2.93 3.21 1.175 8.4 2.2 6.6 0.5
Collin McHugh, pre-Strom 8.94 5.86 1.796 13.7 2.5 5.3 2.1
Collin McHugh, Strom 3.7 3.6 1.253 8.8 2.5 8.4 0.9
Mike Fiers, pre- Strom 3.66 3.61 1.238 8.4 2.8 9.2 1.1
Mike Fiers, Strom 4.59 4.82 1.337 9.1 2.9 7.9 1.6
Ken Giles, pre-Strom 1.56 1.82 1.037 6.5 2.8 11.7 0.2
Ken Giles, Strom 3.23 2.63 1.169 7.3 3.2 13 0.8
Vince Velasquez, Strom 4.37 3.46 1.275 8.1 3.4 9.4 0.8
Vince Velasquez, post-Strom 4.48 4.51 1.389 9 3.5 9.8 1.6
Francis Martes, pre Strom (AAA) 5.29 UA 2.103 11.1 7.8 10.6 1.4
Francis Martes, Strom (Majors) 5.8 4.45 1.509 8.4 5.1 11.4 1.2

The four success stories, Charlie Morton, Will Harris, Dallas Keuchel, and Collin McHugh, all had significant decreases in ERA, from down one to down five. All had decreases in FIP and WHIP. Two out of four significantly increased their strikeout rate, two out of four significantly decreased their home run rate. But I believe the key to their improvement was the dramatically reduced hit rate for all four, down anywhere from 2 per 9 innings to 5 per 9.

Much has been written about how each of these pitchers was transformed by coaching guidance. Keuchel has been the most vocal in praising his coach. article here He seems to credit his coach with improving his mechanics. For Harris it was greater reliance on his cutter that made him an All Star. For Morton an uptick in velocity at age 33 took the league by surprise. For McHugh, coach wanted him to take advantage of his spin rate and use the curve more.

These are the main success stories. I'm sure you can list others who have not made progress under Strom. Dallas Keuchel made it big in 2014, Brad Peacock did not. After that he disappeared for two years and then arose, like a phoenix, in 2017. A Strom success story? Maybe. But maybe learning the slider from his buds in AAA had more to do with it.

Tony Sipp is a confounding case. His first two years confirmed the Strom the Wizard thesis. His last two have been the worst of his career. So if Strom made him, why can't Strom fix him? Maybe Sipp at age 33 has aged early.

At least two pitchers have downright regressed under Strom, though their declines are not as dramatic as the upturns of our four success stories. Clearly both Ken Giles and Mike Fiers have declined somewhat in every category on the chart. Maybe sometimes the sorcery backfires.

One of Strom's products, Vince Velasquez, has shown mild regression since departing from the master's Midas touch, despite maturing age-wise into the prime of his career, and switching to the DL-less National League. Injuries may play a role here. (Note: all four success stories above achieved their improvement despite moving from the NL to the AL)

Some have considered the disappointing debut of 21 year old Francis Martes as evidence of Strom's fallibility; after all a 5.80 ERA, negative WAR, 1.509 WHIP. All atrocious. And yet, except for ERA (and since he pitched mainly in relief as an Astro this is a misleading statistic) he improved in every category after his call up from AAA, DESPITE facing major league batters. He was so bad in AAA it's hard to understand why the Astros thought he could get any big league batters out, unless they believed in the Strom magic. To some extent Strom delivered, but no doubt with his stuff we expect better from Martes going forward. If there is one problem Strom has not shown an ability to solve it has been command issues. (see Michael Feliz) But could anyone else do any better?

So can we expect the Strom sorcery to resurrect Garrit Cole? Fangraphs thinks so. article here They say that Cole should throw fewer fastballs and that the Astros are the most breaking ball oriented team in the majors. Hence, improvement.

So if Cole makes this adjustment and succeeds does this make Brent Strom a wizard, or does the organization take credit? This is a distinction without a difference. Surely, as head pitching coach Strom is a very important factor in determining the organization's pitching philosophy. Finding pitchers who can be fixed or who have a hidden talent has been part of the team's success. Surely Strom plays a big part in this.

I believe that what has made Brent Strom so successful is his flexibility in dealing with each individual player. Notice that of the four reborn players what made each one better was something different than the others. He seems to have a knack for molding each pitcher, not into the preconceived mold of another pitcher according to some dogma, but into the best latent mold already lying within himself, waiting to be discovered.

And isn't that what the Wizard of Oz did? When he was outed and his wizardly powers disproved, still he fulfilled his promises. To the Straw man he gave brains, not by wizardly conjuring, by showing him the intelligence he had within. To the Tin Man he gave a heart, by helping uncover his latent compassion. And to the Cowardly Lion he gave courage, by inspiring in him the true lion-heart he really was.

So no, Brent Strom does not have magical wizard powers. But chances are good he will help Gerrit Cole realize that top of the rotation pitcher that he already really is.

Another World Series. Can't wait for another season. Go Stros.