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No Trouble with the Curve for Gerrit Cole

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros
Gerrit Cole talks with Brian McCann about how dominant he’s looked in the early going.
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

When the Houston Astros acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates in January in exchange for Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz and minor-leaguer Jason Martin, the main takeaways from just about any article you could find were: 1. That the Pirates got straight-up swindled, and 2. (With Lance McCullers’ hundred straight breaking balls in the World Series still fresh in everyone’s mind,) The expectation that Cole would show us more curves than a 90’s hip hop video.

The Astros have played all of 17 games this season and it’s looking less like the Pirates got swindled than it is a full-fledged mugging.

In three starts with the Astros, Cole has a 1.29 ERA (2.20 FIP), a 15.43 K/9 rate and has allowed 1.71 walks per nine. He has allowed three solo home runs, and they account for every run that has crossed the plate against the emerging ace in 2018. It’s still early, but one stat that really stands out so far is that he hasn’t allowed a hit with a runner on base in 21 innings.

Granted, not many have reached base against Cole with his 0.64 WHIP. Cole’s BIP sits at .212, which ranks as the 17th lowest out of 93 qualified pitchers this year. In other words, there will be some regression to the mean over the course of the year. For instance, he may give up a hit, or, (gasp) a home run with somebody on base.

With the number of strikeouts Cole has amassed in the early going, stats have popped up comparing Cole’s start to Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. Part of the reason for this is, as Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports pointed out, that he’s relying less on his mid-90’s heater and focusing more on his breaking pitches. A year ago, Cole was tossing his heater roughly 60% of the time. Through three starts that figure has dropped to 53.2%. Similarly, his changeup usage has dropped from 10.5% to 7.4%, while his curveball (+5.6%) and slider (+4.3%) have seen increased usage.

So how are these two pitches faring so far? According to the Baseball Prospectus PitchFX leaderboards, Cole has thrown 53 curveballs and has a whiff rate of 76.19% (holy crap), nearly 20 points higher than the second-best curveball whiff rate—which happens to belong to Charlie Morton. Down at number nine you’ll find Lance McCullers and his whiff rate of 42.67%.

By comparison, the slider hasn’t been nearly as effective, which is to say that it’s been just fine. Of 64 sliders thrown, 33.33% have resulted in whiffs. While the curve has a horizontal break of 6.90 and a vertical break of -7.47. In other words that sucker moves around quite a bit and looks something like this:

Cole’s slider has a differential movement of 3.43 on the horizontal axis and 0.44 vertically.

The long and short of this whole thing is that Gerrit Cole has been stellar in his first three starts for the Houston Astros and we should be excited to see what’s next for him.

One last stat that I found interesting is that the spin rate on Cole’s fastball is above league average by about 55 rpm. A heater with more rpm tends to stay up a little longer, leading to what is often referred to as a “rising fastball.” Since a rising fastball is physically impossible, what a fastball like Cole’s does is fight against gravity a little more and stay up in the zone more than a typical fastball, giving it the perception that it’s rising.

As batters catch on more to Cole’s breaking pitches (and let’s face it, he’s in a new league that’s adjusting to him as well), his fastball may get a little more play as the season rolls on. We may see The Cole Train pick up steam with yet another weapon to attack hitters around baseball.

We should all be happy that Jeff Luhnow choo choo choosed this runaway righty.

Some interesting notes

I did some digging into the past to see if Cole was this dominant when he first came into the big leagues and found some fun tidbits that seem to be worth sharing.

The first is that the first two starts for Cole marked the first time in his career that he has recorded double-digit strikeout totals in back-to-back games. He’s now done so in three straight.

The three starts the right-hander has made with the Astros have been against Texas, San Diego and then Texas again. Back in 2013 when he debuted, Cole was a midseason call-up, debuting on June 11 against the San Francisco Giants. In September of that year, Cole recorded his first career double-digit strikeout start against....the Rangers. Two starts later he would record his first scoreless outing against the Padres.