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Are Gerrit Cole’s Early-Season Struggles Fixable?

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We were expecting a drop-off in the rotation’s performance, but co-ace Cole’s underperformance might be the most worrisome. Or are they?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

As I mentioned last week, the biggest difference between the 2018 Astros and the 2019 Astros so far has been the step back the starting pitching has taken. And perhaps the most frustrating regression has been Gerrit Cole; we all knew it was going to difficult to replace the innings from the departed Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel, or the injured Lance McCullers, Jr. But Gerrit Cole was supposed to be a sure thing, the arm we could just plug in and not worry about.

Things haven’t quite worked out that smoothly, though. Through eight games last year, Cole was holding batters to a .155/.213/.254 line with a 1.43 ERA. On top of that, he had 86 strikeouts in just 56.2 innings, and every start to date had registered as quality start.

Only six of Cole’s 2019 starts so far are quality starts, and his ERA is correspondingly higher, sitting at 4.17. Given that, it’s no wonder that his record has dropped from 7-1 to 4-4. Of course, my decision to start with ERA, record, and Quality Starts should tell you that not all is as it seems. His 74 strikeouts in 49.2 innings are a little worse, but not befitting of a nearly-3-run jump in ERA. And of course, batters are still only hitting .201/.261/.375 off of him, which is definitely better than they did last year…but that still doesn’t seem like the type of change that should see a tripling in runs allowed.

Sure, some of this might be due to the harder schedule Houston has had to face to date. Last year through eight games, Cole had already racked up half of his starts against the Padres, Diamondbacks, and a much more inept Rangers lineup. But luck might be an even stronger factor.

Of course, it isn’t batted ball luck, which might be your first reaction. No, Cole’s .284 BABIP mark this year isn’t too different from his .286 mark last year. Instead, it’s his strand rate which seems to be driving the change: at 61.3%, only five qualified starters have a worse mark. For an established star like Cole, that just isn’t going to hold up over a full season.

Of course, the fact that a fifth of his fly balls are leaving the park also doesn’t help. That figure is the seventh worst among qualified starters, and given that Gerrit also struggled with homers at the end of his Pirates tenure, that might actually be worth worrying about. His fly ball rates have actually gone down from last year, towards his 2017 level, and he’s allowing more hard-hit baseballs than in either 2017 or 2018. Of course, his infield fly ball rate is also well below where it was in both 2017 and 2018, so getting that back to where it was last year might help fix some of the damage.

Even if Cole does go back to being a little more homer-happy than he was last year, it’s not like that would make him an overall bad pitcher or anything, nor would he return to the depths of his Pittsburgh struggles. He’s still striking batters out at a rate closer to last year than pre-2018 (37.2 K% in 2019, 34.5% in 2018, 23.1% in 2017). Batters are swinging at more of his pitches than ever, and making less contact as well, at both pitches inside and outside of the strike zone (overall, his swing rate has gone from 46.3% to 49.4% to 50.4% this year, while his contact allowed has gone from 79.5% to 71.5% to 67.7%).

Given all of those underlying numbers, I can’t help but feel optimistic that Cole is going to turn his season around. Even in the event that he doesn’t return to the heights of his 2018, he can still be strong enough to help anchor a playoff rotation. And really, given the struggles in the other parts of the Astros’ rotation this year, one more top-line starter would do this bunch a lot of good.