Should Gerrit Cole Be Striking Out More Batters?

Based on stuff, there are very few starting pitchers that can hang with Gerrit Cole. 96 mph heat, plus three other pitches that rate well by peripherals — it’s very fun to watch. But look at the numbers at the end of the year, and the overall results are less whelming. With a team that has very defined (and so far, successful) ideas about pitching, is it possible The Pirates’ Way has sunk Cole’s fantasy value?

How many pitchers throw 95+ with three other pitches that grade as above-average why whiff rates anyway? Answer: four. And they are all pretty good.

Name FBv SL/CT swSTR% CB swSTR% CH swSTR%
Yordano Ventura 97.0 13.60% 14.10% 14.80%
Gerrit Cole 95.5 17.80% 14.80% 12.80%
Carlos Carrasco 95.3 27.60% 16.40% 18.70%
Stephen Strasburg 94.8 28.60% 14.90% 25.60%

I watched Yordano Ventura pitch a game at a bar sitting with a major league baseball player once. Dude couldn’t keep his eyes off the game, and kept muttering “easy cheese.” That’s what it’s like to watch these four pitchers. (Yes I know I cheated by counting Strasburg’s slider, which he’s only thrown 14 times by PITCHf/x.)

But now look at these four pitchers through another light. Here are those same four pitchers, with their projected 2015 strikeout and walk rates, and their career fastball percentages.

Name K% BB% FB%
Yordano Ventura 20.5% 9.1% 65.4%
Gerrit Cole 21.0% 7.5% 65.9%
Carlos Carrasco 22.9% 7.0% 57.9%
Stephen Strasburg 26.6% 6.2% 62.0%

Sort that table for strikeout rate, and Cole drops to second-worst from second-best. Or, since it’s a tiny sample, from second to third. Not enough evidence there to blame the Pirates’ love of the fastball, and fastball command, for Cole’s relatively modest strikeout rates.

And yet there is something here. Of course the pitchers that throw their fastball less often have higher strikeout rates. It’s just how whiff rates work — the fastball has the lowest whiff rate of any pitch in baseball. Throw it more often, you get fewer whiffs. Even if you’ve got an elite fastball.

There are reasons to love the fastball and use it more. You see it here, as Cole says in the interview linked above:

Cole agreed. “That’s all they preach is ground balls,” he said. “Ground balls and fastball efficiency, really, trying to create plane with the fastball. That creates sustainability. When you come up with a faster breaking ball, that’s good. But in the long run, for the guys who pitch for a long time, it boils down to fastball command.”

Looks like you’d follow this philosophy for two main reasons: efficiency and ground balls. Fewer pitches for better health, if you want it in one equation. But how does Cole rate in those efforts?

Name GB% Pitches/PA DL Days/Yr
Yordano Ventura 47.7% 3.82  
Gerrit Cole 49.1% 3.77 31
Carlos Carrasco 51.1% 3.66 46
Stephen Strasburg 47.0% 3.88 41
League Average 44.6% 3.81 19

So Cole has gotten extra grounders by using his sinker often. He’s also used fewer pitches per plate appearance than anyone other than Carrasco. Those .04 pitches per plate appearance that Cole saves over the league average saves him 30-40 pitches over the course of a typical season.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t translated into the best health outcomes for the pitcher, and that was supposedly the reason for the emphasis. Two separate disabled stints for his right shoulder make you nervous about his health going forward, too, since the best predictor of future injury is past injury.

Those health outcomes have stolen as much from Cole than his emphasis on the fastballs, in the end. If you pro-rated out Cole’s stats from last year to 200 innings, you’d push his value up past six bucks into Ian Kennedy territory. But can you do that going forward?

And will Cole ever have a season with an ERA in the mid-twos and more than a strikeout per inning if he doesn’t throw his secondary pitches more?

Maybe! There is some evidence that Cole has been unlucky. A .311 batting average on balls in play alone doesn’t seem so bad, but put it in context. Matt Swartz’s work on SIERA showed a link between strikeout rate and BABIP, and if you sort the last two years for pitchers with a strikeout rate above 22% and a walk rate below 8% — thereby comparing Cole to his peers — Cole has had the third-worst BABIP since he broke into the league. His BABIP was 18% higher than the average set by that grouping.

We’re left with the same problem we started with, but maybe a little more knowledge. Yes, Cole isn’t as great as the sum of his parts, at least he hasn’t been so far. You could blame the Pirates’ philosophy for a lack of strikeouts, but a strikeout per inning from your starter would be star-worthy if the ERA and WHIP followed suit. There’s still hope that one of these years, Cole will put up a Cy-worthy campaign.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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7 years ago

Cole has underachieved at every level. It is not a matter of figuring out why, just accept that it will happen, and accept him for the non-TOR guy that he is.

7 years ago
Reply to  gribo

Nothing is ever that simple.