by Ray Kuhn
Generally moving from the National League to the American League comes with, at the very least, a small bump in the road. However, Houston’s acquisition of Gerrit Cole is likely to have the opposite effect. There are multiple reasons as to why, and while you can’t draw a direct parallel looking at how Justin Verlander performed after his trade to the Astros last summer is a good place to start.
Cole still has a lot to prove in his career before he is truly recognized in the same breath as Verlander, but as far as 2018 rankings go both right-handers reside in the same neighborhood and I would expect the move to Houston to give Cole a boost this season (just as it did for Verlander in 2017). Cole didn’t have a bad 2017, a 3.88 ERA, but it was a disappointment as compared to 2016 and a drop-off from Cole’s 3.50 ERA for his career. He is still young and talented, and regardless of the trade there would still be some optimism.
While the Pirates, rightfully so, have received a great deal of credit for both their approach to analytics and pitching coach Ray Serage, the Astros take things to the next level. The focus in Houston is on throwing your best pitch, minimizing fastball usage, maximizing your strengths and capitalizing on spin rate. All of these things should suit Cole. Despite his struggles last season he did appear to take some of those steps and that should continue.
As we talk about Cole’s struggles last season it really boils down to home runs. He allowed 1.37 home runs per nine innings last year, and even after that outlier his career mark is still 0.77. This is part of the reason why some of the advanced metrics told vastly different stories about his 2017. In reality Cole’s 3.88 ERA could have been worse, but it was a disappointment based on his draft slot and expectations. If you look just at his 3.33 FIP an automatic correction is in order. However, his 4.02 xFIP tells a different story.
Historically all three of those numbers have been relatively in step throughout Cole’s career, and they provide optimism moving forward; 3.50 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 3.47 xFIP. Also he struck out 8.7 batters per nine innings last season compared to a career average of 8.4, so he is in good shape there. All of this will be rendered irrelevant if he doesn’t do something about those home runs. There is some hope that a correction will take place, as his 15.9% home run to fly ball rate stands out as compared to his 6.8% mark in 2016 and 10% career rate.
While his ground ball rate did have a slight dip last season, 45.8% compared to 47.4%, it wasn’t enough to cause much concern. If he updates his approach to move off his fastball and to pitch lower in the zone, his ground ball rate should easily rebound. In turn that means he will be able to take advantage of Houston’s infield defense and shifting.
No one is going to argue with the fact that Cole throws hard, but his regular fastball is very generic as there isn’t much in the way of spin and movement. Last season he reduced his fastball usage by 6.6%, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that trend continue this season. By the same token he threw about 5% more change-ups last season. The biggest change this season should come in Cole throwing more than the 10% of curveballs he threw last season to take advantage of it’s high spin rate. More importantly he needs to capitalize on what is perhaps his best pitch, his slider, which he threw only 17% of the time last season.
Cole is a talented pitcher who has a lot of good options at his disposal. The biggest thing will be to take advantage of those tools as he alters his approach. Houston will likely work to maximize his strengths while taking advantage of his strong slider, and limit the fly balls which did rise four percent last season.
Overall though the signs are here for Cole to be a strong number two fantasy starter.
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|Starting Pitchers||1-20: 02/20/18|