By: Chris Larson
Pitching has been a common storyline this postseason whether it be Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, Jack Flaherty of the St. Louis Cardinals, Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees, or Justin Verlander and another special starting pitcher, Gerrit Cole, of the Houston Astros. Each and every one of those individuals have had their moment to shine this October and have contributed significantly one way or another on the big stage of postseason baseball.
Despite the fact that all six of those individuals are talented in their own unique way, Gerrit Cole, otherwise known as The Cole Train, continues to write a stellar story for the 2019 regular season and so far through this postseason. Going into the postseason, everyone knew that the Houston Astros were going to be a major threat to everyone else in the American League because their starting rotation consisted of the aforementioned Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in the number one and two spots, followed up by Zack Greinke in the three hole. Yet, it's almost as though The Cole Train hasn't even stopped putting together a track record of success for this entire year yet.
If you recall, the right-hander finished the 2019 regular season with a 2.50 ERA over 212.1 innings of work with (326) strikeouts, a (0.89) WHIP, and the second lowest walk rate of his career at (5.9%). Furthermore, The Cole Train ended the regular season with a (2.64) Fielding Independent Percentage, the highest Wins Above Replacement value of his career at (7.4), and an Opponent Batting Average Against of (.185). We could continue rattling on and on all day about the spectacular numbers that Gerrit Cole put up during the 2019 regular season, but it would probably span on forever. That's how impressive and dominate he has been this year for the Houston Astros. After all, a WAR of (7.4) is spectacular because that essentially means that Gerrit Cole tacked on (7) wins to the Houston Astros overall (107-55) record and gave the team a legitimate chance to end the game in the win column every time he took to the mound.
Sometimes, when the calendar flips to October and pitchers are forced to pitch under the spotlights of a pressurized postseason game, they crumble under the pressure and succumb to the high expectations that their respective fan base as well as everyone else around the game places on them. For Cole, that could be further from the truth and in fact, you could make the argument that he has embraced the pressure of postseason baseball and thrived in the spotlight, as he looks to lead the Houston Astros back to another World Series appearance.
Over three starts so far this month, Gerrit Cole has posted a 0.40 ERA over 22.2 innings pitched with (32) strikeouts and a (0.79) WHIP. Thus far, Cole has faced 84 batters meaning that he has an overall strikeout percentage of (38.0%). It's probably hard for many Pittsburgh Pirates fans to watch postseason baseball this year and wonder "What if...." considering that the likes of Austin Meadows, Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow, and David Freese have all played this October, but seeing Gerrit Cole thrive like this has to sting. Granted, he might not have performed at this same level for the entire regular season and postseason with the Pittsburgh Pirates given the vast difference in philosophy when it comes to analytics between the two organizations, but it's still rough for the Pirates fanbase.
What's been really interesting to look at for, Gerrit Cole throughout this postseason, is his pitch mix that he relied on against the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees. For more on that, take a look at the three graphics below, courtesy of data compiled by Baseball Savant.
The October 5th and October 10th starts came against the Tampa Bay Rays, while the October 15th one came today against the New York Yankees. As you can see from all three graphics, Cole's bread and butter pitch is his four-seam fastball. What's fascinating about this is the fact of where the pitches ended up for each of the three starts in correlation to the strike zone. For example, take a look at Cole's start on October 5th against the Rays. A lot of the contact during that start was confined to inside the strike zone with the majority of the contact, outside of the strike zone, happening near the bottom around home plate. However, compare that to his start on October 10th and the start he made today and you will see that the contact was more spread around both inside as well as above and below the strike zone.
Furthermore, during his first start and today's start against the New York Yankees, Cole really tricked hitters with his slider which resulted in (8) swinging strikes and (3) called strikes for today's matchup. In addition, another really interesting takeaway is the fact that he introduced a fifth pitch to his repertoire during today's start. As you can see at the bottom of the list of pitch types on the right of today's graphic, there is a pitch type in orange font that reads "Two-Seam Fastball." Cole ended up throwing a Two-Seam Fastball twice during today's start with one of them ending in a called strike. What will be interesting to see is if he ends up relying on it more in his next start, should that come against the New York Yankees during a clinching Game Seven this coming Sunday.
Beyond the pitch types that he has thrown, Cole has been equally as impressive with his velocity as well and what types of pitches he throws in different situations. For more on that, take a look at another graphic below, once again courtesy of Baseball Savant.
There's a couple of interesting notes from this data. The first being how much his slider has factored into his success so far this postseason. He came out of the gate on October 5th throwing (29) of his total (118) pitches with his slider and had a total of (23) during his start this afternoon. In that game, the Rays had a really hard time trying to not swing at some of his pitches as evidenced by the (33) swinging strikes and (14) called strikes that he had. In contrast, today's game against the New York Yankees resulted in a total of (13) swinging strikes and (18) called strikes. Additionally, take a look at the average velocity of his slider today. It sat at (90.1 MPH) compared to (89.2 MPH) on October 5th and (89.4 MPH) during his last start against the Yankees.
In addition, you can see the Two-Seam Fastball mixed in as well from his start today against the Yankees. On that pitch, Cole averaged a (98.5 MPH) velocity. For comparison purposes, during the 2019 regular season, Cole threw (80) Two-Seam Fastballs and relied on it (2.4%) of the time. So it's definitely a pitch that Gerrit Cole has relied on previously, but it's one that has been extremely rare so far this postseason. As stated previously, it will be interesting to see if Cole relies on it in a clinching Game Seven against the New York Yankees in the current American League Championship Series or if he ends up relying on it even more come the World Series, should the Astros represent the American League in the Fall Classic.
Diving a little deeper now, let's focus in on Gerrit Cole's October 5th start against the Tampa Bay Rays for Game Two of the American League Divisional Series. That was the start that Cole recorded the most strikeouts of the three, (15) to be exact, and the start where he seemed to have the most contact confined within the strike zone. During that game, the Tampa Bay Rays had a very balanced starting lineup with (4) lefties and (5) righties, making things challenging for Gerrit Cole and the Houston Astros pitching staff as a whole.
As you can see, it was hard for both lefties and righties to make contact on Gerrit Cole's pitches. Of the two, more contact was made by right-handed Tampa Bay Rays hitters compared to left-handed, but it's impressive how many strikes were made as well. In that start against lefties, Cole threw (29) fastballs, (8) changeups, (14) knuckle curves, and (4) sliders with an average exit velocity of (90.4 MPH). Against righties, Cole took an even more aggressive approach with his fastball throwing it (33) times and relied on his slider (25) times as well as his knuckle curve (5) times with an average exit velocity of (90.5 MPH).
One of the interesting trends from the chart above is where the pitches are located as was the case in the first exercise in this discussion. Gerrit Cole focused on throwing his pitches towards the left side of home plate against righties compared to scattering the pitches throughout the zone against lefties. A lot of that was likely because of the bat path that some of the Tampa Bay Rays hitters take when they are in the box at the plate. For instance, Austin Meadows the most well-known left-handed hitter in the Rays lineup, tends to focus on the heart of the strike zone and making contact in that zone. Despite the fact of there being plenty of pitches located in that area, as indicated by the graphic on the left above, Meadows went 1-for-4 at the plate that day with (1) strikeout.
In regard to righties, the most well-regarded right-handed hitter for the Tampa Bay Rays is Tommy Pham. When he is in the box, Pham makes a lot of his contact in the strike zone from the middle part and out towards the right side of home plate. As such, Gerrit Cole countered that by focusing his pitch location towards the other side of the plate thus preventing as much contact from being made as possible. Some of this was likely identified during the pre-game planning meeting that Gerrit Cole had with the Houston Astros coaching staff and analytic department.
As it stands right now, the Houston Astros continue to dominate their opponents with lethal starting pitching and that is going to continue to be the case for the remainder of this postseason. Whether or not the Houston Astros ultimately end up making it to the World Series, remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain - the Washington Nationals want nothing to do with any of the Houston Astros starting pitchers including Gerrit Cole otherwise known as The Cole Train. The Cole Train might see as though he's about ready to run out of gas anytime soon, but he's going to continue chugging along in an attempt to lead the Houston Astros to another World Series Championship to the city of Houston.