PITTSBURGH — Gerrit Cole is having trouble keeping the ball down.
That was the analysis both Cole and manager Clint Hurdle offered after Cole’s fourth straight ugly start Thursday in a 7-1 loss to the Miami Marlins.
Cole allowed seven runs on 11 hits in just 4.2 innings. Early, it was hard-hit balls and the Marlins roped five doubles in the first four innings. Later, it was softer contact, as the Miami hitters found grass with five straight singles in the fifth.
In particular, it was the failing in the fifth inning — all five hits came with two outs — that had Cole upset after the game.
“There were a lot of base hits that were not necessarily scorched, at least compared to earlier in the game, but I failed to get them on the ground,” he said. “I’m looking for those balls to be hit on the ground to the shortstop instead of lofted six feet over the infield.”
“Balls were just elevated,” added Hurdle. “Those balls, if they’re down in the zone, they’re mis-hits. They’re fisted. If they’re up, they find outfield grass versus being on the ground.”
You can see that Cole did indeed leave a lot of his pitches that inning in the upper-middle part of the zone, particularly the four-seam fastball.
But if Cole was trying to get ground balls, shouldn’t he have been throwing more two-seamers? He fired off just two in the fifth and 14 all game (14.9 percent) compared to 44 four-seamers (46.8 percent). In his career, he’s thrown the two-seamer about 17.7 percent of the time, so throwing it less than normal (even if just by a pitch or two) on a night where he was having trouble keeping the ball down seemed unusual.
I asked Cole if he thought the issues he’s been having were somehow affecting the two-seamer in a different way. He didn’t bite.
“The lack of depth is showing up on everything,” he said.
So I looked deeper for a reason that Cole might be hesitant to lean on his sinker. In 2017, opposing hitters are batting .333 on it on balls in play, which might have Cole and the staff hesitant based on outcomes rather than results.
But there’s more. It also isn’t really doing its job. In 2016, which was a down year for Cole overall, his two-seam fastball got ground balls 57.9 percent of the time — his best pitch in that regard. This season, it’s inducing grounders just 45.2 percent of the time — behind his slider, change and curve. It’s also generating swinging strikes at a minuscule 4.7 percent of the time. It also hasn’t been reliably down in the zone, either. (This is from the pitcher’s point of view.)
So Cole’s two-seam fastball is getting fewer swings-and-misses, it’s getting hit more often and when it gets hit, it’s going for fewer ground balls and more hits. I’d say Cole has a pretty good reason to avoid leaning on it. The question now is what he can do about getting it back to a better place.
MORE SPOTS, MORE OFFENSE
Max Moroff entered the game as a defensive substitute and played four innings at shortstop, for his first appearance at that position in the majors. Moroff has spent a significant time working at shortstop in Indianapolis, and he said he felt comfortable there, even doing it for the first time in the majors.
“I felt fine out there,” he said. “I’ve been getting my reps in Triple A and have been pretty much playing every day since Gift [Ngoepe] came up.”
Now that Ngoepe is back down, Moroff will be the primary backup to Jordy Mercer at the shortstop position. Moroff and Phil Gosselin, who has also played shortstop, entered the game defensively at the same time. Hurdle put Gosselin at third, giving Moroff the nod at short.
“The more positions that I can play, the more opportunities there are for a double switch or spot starting, whatever it may be,” Moroff said.
In fact, Moroff said he feels so comfortable at shortstop it wasn’t really on his mind Thursday night. He’s been more focused on cutting down his strikeouts at the plate. He only got one at-bat against the Marlins, but struck out for the third time in 17 MLB plate appearances this season.
“I just need to have a better two-strike approach and the put the ball into play,” Moroff said.
Josh Harrison went 2 for 4, with two of the Pirates’ four hits. … Josh Bell went 1 for 2 with an RBI. … Dovydas Neverauskas pitched the ninth and gave up two hits but got out of the innings with a double play. … Elias Diaz made an error in his second straight game. He overthrew second base attempting to throw out Dee Gordon in the first inning.