What makes Gerrit Cole … well, Gerrit Cole?

… And why wasn’t anyone else that good?

Gerrit Cole is a great pitcher. A really great pitcher. I know that. You know that. The Yankees sure knew that when they offered him a record nine-year, $324 million contract during the off-season. But this got me thinking – why is Gerrit Cole such a great pitcher? What sets him above the rest and elevates him from a good pitcher to a great one? Is it even something that is measurable and quantifiable or is it something in the intangibles that you just can’t see?

Well, I can’t delve into the intangibles (my grasp of metaphysics is a bit ropey). But the tangibles, well those I can look at.

What is good versus great?
Before I delve into data and various player comparisons, I feel I should take a moment to quantify how I’m defining a great pitcher and a good pitcher.

Thankfully, Fangraphs has ridden to the rescue here (as they often do) with their WAR classification. Using the Fangraphs metric, a player with a WAR of 3 or above is considered to have been a good player that season.

To give you an idea of their WAR scale progression, 4-5 is considered to be an All-Star, 5-6 a Superstar, and 6+ is an MVP candidate.

Gerrit Cole’s WAR for the 2019 season, according to Fangraphs, was 7.4 … seven point four!

So what is it that got Cole to that exceptional WAR figure for the 2019 season?

Is it just that he has exceptional stuff?
One of the most obvious things to look at when considering what sets a pitcher above his peers is his stuff, Kershaw’s curve, Sale’s slider … often a top tier pitcher has a completely filthy pitch that batters simple struggle to hit. Does Cole fall into this category?

Put simply – no, not really. At least not in terms of movement.

Using Baseball Savant’s pitcher analysis tools, I’ve extracted the average horizontal and vertical movement for Cole’s pitching arsenal last year and compared them to the league average for those same pitches.

What it shows is that his stuff doesn’t really stand out as being nastier than the league average (not that I could hit any of it). In fact, he actually generates less vertical movement than the average for all bar one of his five-pitch repertoire. His sinker, for example, drops around a foot less than the average sinker thrown in 2019. Only his curve breaks down by an above-average value, and even then, only by an inch (Kershaw’s is a whopping 11 inches above average for comparison).

He does generate slightly above average horizontal movement for most of his pitches, but nothing drastic (Sale’s slider generates eight inches of above-average lateral movement, more than double the lateral movement variance of any of Cole’s pitches).

How does this stack up against a good pitcher, though? Well, using the Fangraphs WAR values, we can see that one Madison Bumgarner pitched himself to 3.2 WAR last season – a good player by the Fangraphs scale (and by most fans’ estimates too).

Turning to Baseball Savant again, we can compare MadBum’s stuff to the league average, and surprisingly, we see a reasonably similar pattern to Cole’s. Slightly above-average lateral movement on a couple of pitches and below-average vertical movement.

Now I know what you’re going to say – Cole pitched in the AL and Madbum in the NL, so I also found the first starting pitcher in the AL to have thrown a minimum of 150 innings and have a WAR of 3 or higher. This happened to be John Means of the Baltimore Orioles. Curiously Means had below-average movement across the board.

If his movement isn’t what sets him above and beyond, what about his raw pace? It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t move much if it’s passed you before your brain can react to it after all.

Well, Cole is pretty quick to be fair.

Comparing all pitchers who threw a minimum of 250 pitches in the MLB last year he ranks:

  • 28th on average 4-seam velocity
  • 21st on average sinker velocity
  • 16th on average slider velocity
  • 65th on change-up velocity
  • 34th on curve velocity

That puts him comfortably in the top 10% for average pitch velocity for all his pitches. And yet he’s not top in any of them. This suggests that raw pace alone isn’t the key – if it was you might reasonably expect Noah Syndergaard to outperform Cole in terms of WAR as he throws the same five-pitch arsenal, three of them faster than Cole and the other two only marginally slower (Thor’s WAR is actually a whole three less than Cole’s).

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Pitch Location
So if it’s not what he throws, or how fast he throws it, maybe it’s where he throws it that gives Cole the edge over all the other pitchers?

Cole’s pitch location percentages can be seen in the table below.

What stands out is that he throws slightly more than average outside the zone and an above-average amount on the edges.

Could this above-average amount on the edges account for his brilliance? Putting the ball in that (if you’ll pardon the cricket parlance) corridor of uncertainty where the hitters aren’t sure whether to swing or not seems like an eminently sensible thing to do. After all, you’re bound to catch some hitters looking and tempt a few into swinging at deliveries that they think are inside the strike zone,  causing them to whiff or induce poor contact.

In order to judge whether that’s the difference between simply being good and being great, however, we need to see how this compares to some good pitchers.

If we compare Cole’s data to that of both Means and Bumgarner, we see the following:

What immediately leaps out is that Means and Cole have exactly the same percentage splits as one another! The second point of note is that Cole, Means, and Bumgarner all threw exactly the same percentage of their pitches on the edges of the strike zone – and yet there’s ≈4 WAR between Cole and both Means and Bumgarner.

Clearly, this above-average percentage of pitches thrown at the edges isn’t the key to Cole’s greatness either.

So where on earth does all that leave us in terms of identifying why Cole is such an outstanding pitcher?

Frankly, I don’t really know.

There’s not one single element where Cole stands out as the league leader in any of the areas looked at – and that, I think, might be the nub of it.

There’s no one area where he’s some sort of exceptional super-freak. But he is really, really good at everything that a pitcher needs to do! There’s not a single element that makes him the outstanding pitcher that he is, it’s a blend of all the elements working together at an exceptionally high level.

Either that or he had a magical beard, and now, like Samson, all his powers will fade away thanks to a Yankees-branded razor blade.

As a Red Sox fan, I’m hoping for the latter, but I think I’m going to be sadly disappointed.

Photo courtesy of Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated, Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins (Getty Images)

Rich Hampson is a guest writer for Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @rjhampson

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