In his first two starts, Gerrit Cole has gone heavy on the fastball. Really heavy. As in 80.7% of his pitches have been fastballs. Only one pitcher in all of baseball can top that amount, and that is Bartolo Colon, who is throwing 84.6% fastballs.
The first thing I thought about when I saw Cole’s fastball percentages was an article I read a little over a month ago about Ross Detwiler. The article was written by Adam Berry of MLB.com, looking at how frequently Detwiler was throwing his fastball.
Detwiler was throwing 89.6% fastballs this year, after throwing 80.3% last year. Just like Cole, Detwiler throws a four seam fastball and a two seam fastball. He’s got some good velocity on the four seam fastball, touching 96, but not anything close to the velocity that Cole has. Detwiler also does an outstanding job of pounding the strike zone and commanding his pitches, which is what makes him so effective with the fastball heavy approach.
Some of the things the article by Berry highlighted were:
**You’re not going to get far unless you throw your fastball where you want it.
**The fastball should set up all of the other pitches.
**Joe Maddon said that he thinks fastball pitchers with command and aggressiveness pitch deeper into games. He also noted that you get quick outs with a good fastball.
**Ryan Zimmerman said he thinks a well-located fastball is the hardest pitch to hit in the majors.
I didn’t need to see Cole throwing 80% fastballs in the majors to draw a connection between this article and something the Pirates might be embracing. Commanding the fastball, working off the fastball, and getting quick outs/working deep into games are core concepts for all of their pitchers in the minors.
If you look at the pitchers who have used the fastball the most this year, you’ll notice a trend with some of the teams at the top.
The Washington Nationals have three starting pitchers in the top 20 in fastball percentage. Those pitchers are Gio Gonzalez (7th), Jordan Zimmerman (13th), and Stephen Strasburg (18th). They’d have another if Detwiler had enough innings to qualify for the list.
The St. Louis Cardinals have two of the top five pitchers on the list. Lance Lynn (2nd) and Shelby Miller (4th) are both looking like current and future top of the rotation guys this year.
Those are two teams who have good reputations for developing prospects, and developing pitching prospects. As a team, the Cardinals throw the fastball more often than any other team in the majors (63.9%). The Nationals are third, at 62.7%. The Arizona Diamondbacks, another team who has been good recently at developing pitchers, are in second plate (63.2%).
So where do the Pirates stack up in the majors? Their team total is 60.7%, ranking 8th overall. Their rotation (including injured players) includes the following results:
Gerrit Cole – 80.7% fastball
Charlie Morton – 74.4%
Jeff Locke – 66.2%
Jeanmar Gomez – 65.8%
James McDonald – 61.1%
A.J. Burnett – 60.9%
Wandy Rodriguez – 59.6%
Francisco Liriano – 43.5%
The average starting pitcher in the majors throws the fastball 55.7% of the time. The only starter who is below that number is Liriano. Everyone else is above average, and it’s not even close.
But it’s not just about throwing fastballs. It’s about throwing good fastballs. Probably the best way to judge how effective the fastball approach is would be to look at how opponents are hitting the ball. The Pirates starters rank 27th in line drive percentage at 19.5%. If they were throwing bad fastballs, you would probably be seeing more line drives, with more batters squaring up on the pitch.
That doesn’t say much about the results of their development system, since Cole and Locke are the only guys who were developed by the Pirates out of the group of pitchers above. But it does indicate that the approach is working.
As for Cole, there’s no question that he’s got a great fastball. In his first start of the year he averaged 96.1 MPH with his four seam fastball. That was better than any other starting pitcher who has thrown a pitch this year, including Stephen Strasburg (95.5), Matt Harvey (95.0), and Jeff Samardzija (95.0). You could easily argue that with that velocity, his fastball is one of the best pitches in the majors. So why not throw it until opponents show they can hit it? So far, they haven’t been able to do a good job in that department.
The fastball approach is good, but Cole still needs those off-speed pitches to get the key strikeout. He hasn’t been able to do that this year, both in Triple-A and the majors. This was on display today in the second inning. With a runner on third and only one out, Cole was in a prime situation for a strikeout. He went 1-2 to Tim Federowicz, then threw two straight slurves (not his slider, which is the better breaking pitch, and which he hasn’t been using). Both went for balls. He ended up getting an RBI groundout on a 99 MPH fastball.
It has been a problem all year that Cole can’t put people away when needed with those breaking pitches. He’s still going to be a good pitcher without that, since he goes with a fastball heavy approach, and his fastball is a great pitch. But if Cole could improve the command of his slider (or actually use it, and I’m not sure why he isn’t), then he could become a great pitcher. A guy who has one of the best fastballs in the game, and who can control a game using only his fastball is one thing. That guy with a dominant breaking pitch that he can command and use for strikeouts when needed is another. If Cole can reach that point, he could reach his ceiling as a true ace, and one of the best pitchers in the game.
Links and Notes
**Check out the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 9: What To Do With the Rotation When The Starters Return?