Yankees’ Gerrit Cole Provides A Cutter, Altering His Arsenal On The Fly

In recent weeks in this space, I’ve rolled out my annual MLB Best Pitches series. Click to see the pitch-specific articles on changeups, curveballs, cutters/splitters, four-seam fastballs, sinkers and sliders. They were then combined to create 2021 Pitcher Grade-Point Averages. Now, we’re going to dig a little deeper into some surprising 2021 GPAs, and incorporate 2022 results to make some observations about the future for selected pitchers.

It might have been a little surprising to see Gerrit Cole in the 2nd quartile of MLB starters in my Grade-Point Average article last week. After all, he was my pick for 2021 AL Cy Young, leading the league in my batted ball-based “Tru” Pitching Runs Above Average metric, nosing out ERA qualifiers Nathan Eovaldi and Lucas Giolito and non-qualifiers Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon. (Qualifiers Dylan Cease and Lance McCullers Jr. and non-qualifiers Chris Bassitt, Eduardo Rodriguez and Alek Manoah also finished tightly bunched ahead of actual winner Robbie Ray.)

The Grade-Point Average list largely parallels its “Tru” Pitching Runs counterpart, but there are some notable mismatches. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as the former is largely rating inputs, and the latter results. The GPAs should be viewed as more subjective, scouting measures that we can use to project a pitcher’s career arc moving forward. A little more of this, a little less of this, some refinement here, and that’s where the pitcher could be headed.

In 2021, Cole received a 3.25 GPA. He got B+” grades for his four-seamer (47.1% usage rate), and slider (22.2%), his two most oft-used pitches. He threw his knuckle-curve (15.7%) and changeup (14.2%) at almost equal rates, but got different results from the two (a “D+” and an “A”, respectively). All pitches were graded on their bat-missing and contact management results, compared to league average swing-and-miss rates and pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Scores. An average pitch received a “B”.

A quick detour here to expound on the outsized value of a great fastball. Most of the elite pitchers of the past decade – the deGroms, Verlanders and Coles – reached those heights on the strength of their fastballs. The four-seamer, each and every year, is the least effective pitch in baseball. It allows tons of damage compared to other offerings, and only sinkers miss fewer bats. The great pitchers tend to defy those realities, and miss bats and minimize damage expertly with their fastballs.

Gerrit Cole always threw hard, but he didn’t have a great fastball until he left Pittsburgh. In 2017, his last year as a Pirate, he posted a below average 131 Adjusted Contact Score and an average range 7.8% swing-and-miss rate with his four-seamer, earning a mediocre “C+” grade. In 2018-19, his only two years as an Astro, he got “A” and “A+” grades with the pitch, posting average range 125 and 116 Adjusted Contact Scores, but mammoth, off-of-the-charts pitch-specific whiff rates of 14.0% and 17.0%, respectively.

As a Yankee, he hasn’t maintained that pace with his fastball. In 2020-21, his four-seamer earned “B” and “B+” grades, with his Adjusted Contact Scores remaining in the average range (121 and 128) and his whiff rate dropping and then returning to well north of average in 2021 ( 11.0% and 12.9%). With strong secondaries in his change (49 Adjusted worst Contact Score, 16.4% whiff rate) and slider (89, 19.0%), it was enough to withstand the deteriorate in his knuckle-curve (145, 2nd among qualifiers, 11.0%) last season.

Still, assuming that his four-seamer is not going to be able to recapture its full flower as Cole enters his age 32 season, something needs to be done to keep him at the forefront of MLB starting pitchers.

So Cole did what the great ones often do entering the 2022 season, and made a big change on the fly. He’s introduced a cutter, and is throwing it 14.6% of the time, largely at the expense of his knuckle-curve and slider. And he’s had fairly dramatic success with it in the early going of 2022. He’s posted a 20.0% swing-and-miss rate, far above average for a cutter, and a glittering 25 Adjusted Contact Score. (Small Sample Size Alert – he’s allowed all of 11 balls in play with the pitch thus far.) Still, 7 of those 11 batted balls (63.6%) have been hit on the ground, a great sign. If the season ended today – which it obviously does not – Cole’s cutter would get an “A+” grade.

Also, interestingly enough, the knuckle-curve has bounced back a bit so far in 2022, likely in part due to its decreased usage. Its whiff rate is up to 15.8%, now in the average range, and its adjusted contact score is well down to 78. It gets a “B+” for the first month of 2022 – its reality may in fact be in between the 2021 and 2022 grades. The slider has inched backward to a “B” thus far in 2022, with an improved whiff rate (21.0%) and slightly worse Adjusted Contact Score of 116.

There is something to worry about in Cole’s early 2022 numbers, however. His fastball performance appears to be deteriorating further. His pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score of 146 is a career worst, but that’s not the big problem. The four-seamer’s whiff rate of 9.5% is. That’s almost exactly league average; it hasn’t been in that vicinity since Cole’s Pittsburgh days. If the season ended today, the pitch would earn a “C+” grade.

So are Cole’s days of dominance numbered? It’s not easy to say. Durability and innings bulk have always been among his greatest strengths, and given the uneven spring ramp-up due to the lockout, we don’t know where he or any starting pitcher is in those departments just yet. Lots of great pitchers have lost their best fastball and compensated in other ways to remain great. The introduction of a potentially great cutter to Cole’s arsenal is a feather in his cap.

It’s simple math, however – if Cole is going to throw his four-seamer almost half of the time, as he does, it had better be an above average pitch for him to be truly great. The velocity is still there, but hitters are centering it up as they did when Cole was an unpolished youngster. The ball, the weather and whatever other factors are currently in play have actually saved Cole from a worse start to 2022. Pitch-specific whiff rates tend to stabilize quickly, so I am worried about Gerrit Cole’s fastball. He’s going to need that cutter to remain a pitcher worthy of the Cy Young hunt.

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