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Who’s Afraid of Gerrit Cole? Every Batter He Faces.

The Houston starter could be going where only Randy Johnson has gone before

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Wednesday, Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta found himself in a rather unpleasant situation: facing a 1-2 count with Gerrit Cole on the bump. Perhaps expecting a breaking ball, or just unable to muster a swing, Iannetta watched a 98 mph fastball nick the top corner of the zone as the Astros right-hander took off on a post-strikeout strut. Only the umpire (incorrectly) ruled the pitch a ball, gifting Iannetta another chance. Cole, visibly irritated, returned to his perch on the rubber as Iannetta stepped out of the box, steeling himself for the next delivery. Turns out, another two-strike offering from MLB’s strikeout leader isn’t much of a gift at all.

On 2-2, Cole upped the ante with a 99 mph fastball that glanced the edge of the zone. Iannetta wouldn’t be so lucky—unlucky?—as to receive a third chance. The umpire rung him up, and Cole got to strut after all.

Iannetta can take solace in the fact that he is not alone; 138 separate batters have combined for 226 strikeouts against Cole, who is putting up a season for the ages, and this age in particular. As strikeouts proliferate throughout the league, he has mowed down more batters than anyone, and his punch-out prowess has reached historic levels. Two-thirds of the way through the season, Cole is mounting a formidable challenge to the legendary Randy Johnson for the most prolific K/9 rate of all time.

In 2001, the Big Unit punched out 372 batters (and one bird) and recorded the highest K/9 in league history, at 13.41. This year, Cole is nipping at his heels: During his July 22 start against Oakland, Cole became the second-fastest pitcher (after Johnson in 2001) to eclipse the 200-strikeout mark, having needed just 133 1/3 innings to get there. In that outing, he struck out 11 over seven innings to bring his season K/9 up to the record-setting pace of 13.5. In his three starts since, Cole has pitched well—recording three wins and a 1.80 ERA over 20 innings—but his K/9 has dipped to 12.98, which would be the fourth-highest rate of all time, just behind Chris Sale, who has struck out 13.18 batters per nine innings this season but struggled otherwise. With another big game or two, starting Tuesday, when he’s scheduled to take the mound against the White Sox, Cole could vault right back to the top of the leaderboard.

Cole has always had tremendous promise—the Pirates selected him first overall in the 2011 draft—but his path to the top has been unusual. Baseball historians widely consider his career in two distinct epochs: Before Astros (BA) and After Astros (AA). BA, the UCLA product was a sinker-baller whose actual performance was good but never quite lived up to the nastiness of his stuff. AA, Cole is an illustrious strikeout artist and one of the undisputed best pitchers in the league, finishing fifth in Cy Young voting last year and currently fifth among all pitchers in fWAR in 2019. The righty’s transformation has been well documented; upon arriving in Houston, Cole ditched his sinker and pitch-to-contact approach, weaponized his four-seam fastball up in the zone, and increased the usage of his sinister curveball. Along the way, he has been touted as the ultimate example of how smart front offices can use data to improve and optimize performance.

In 2019, Cole has improved upon his terrific 2018 campaign and recorded another (albeit more modest) jump in strikeouts. He’s done this in large part by doubling down on the adjustments he made last year. His sinker rate, which he cut from from 16.5 percent to 2.8 percent last year, has shrunk to nearly untraceable levels, at just 0.5 percent. He has continued to pound the upper half of the zone with fastballs and dot the lower edges with breaking balls. He has also implemented some minor tweaks to his repertoire, such as throwing a few more sliders at the expense of curves. But there is more to Cole’s success than front-office tinkering. A close look at the righty’s various offerings makes clear that for hitters, Gerrit Cole in 2019 is simply one of the most unpleasant hangs in league history.

Imagine you’ve come to the plate opposite Cole. You’ve adjusted your batting gloves, perhaps several times; you’ve found a nice divot in the batter’s box and situated yourself comfortably; you coil into your stance. You’re a major league hitter and you’ve done your homework: You know to expect his four-seam fastball around 50 percent of the time; you know he throws lots of strikes and works ahead in the count. Still, there is a 36.8 percent chance you’ll be disposed of without so much as testing the defense.

Strikeouts by Pitch

Pitch Number of Strikeouts Percentage of Total Strikeouts
Pitch Number of Strikeouts Percentage of Total Strikeouts
Four-seam fastball 124 55%
Slider 60 27%
Curve 33 15%

In all likelihood, it will be the fastball that sends you packing. Cole’s four-seam averages 97 mph with unique movement. Due to gravity, all pitches drop on their way to the plate; the average fastball, for example, drops 16 inches. But Cole generates so much spin on the pitch that it drops only 11 inches, which creates the illusion that the pitch is rising. When located up in the strike zone, that velocity and spin make his four-seam incredibly hard to hit—let alone hit well—even if you know it’s coming. Batters are hitting a paltry .182 against Cole’s fastball with a 34.9 percent whiff rate.

Once Cole gets ahead, he turns more often to his slider, which batters miss on 37.2 percent of the time. At an average of 89.4 mph, he throws it as hard as some pitchers’ fastballs. Rather than sweep across the zone, it darts to the edges at the very last moment, as if it were afraid of the bat.

And the hammer. Cole’s ability to throw breaking balls that differ in speed and break presents a nearly impossible challenge for batters who are bracing themselves to catch up to 97 mph. His ability to mix three elite pitches—and a solid but infrequently used changeup—keeps hitters off balance and uncomfortable while Cole racks up strikeouts.

It’s also true that Cole has benefited from the leaguewide strikeout surge even as he has contributed to it. Today’s hitters are less inclined to sacrifice pop for contact. Where hitters in past eras might have choked up with two strikes and simply tried to put the ball in play—against Randy Johnson, for example—many of Cole’s adversaries are taking full cuts despite being behind in the count. Even so, Cole’s stuff, and his ability to deliver his pitches to the optimal spots, separates him from his peers. If you step into the box against Gerrit Cole, you would do well to remember: It’s his plate, and you’re just standing next to it.

Strikeouts don’t always equate to success on the mound, but Cole has spun his bat-missing ability into a Cy Young–caliber season and what is sure to be a lucrative contract in free agency after this year. He leads an Astros rotation that ranks sixth in all of baseball in fWAR and just acquired Zack Greinke at the trade deadline. Cole’s pursuit of the single-season K/9 record could inject some drama into Houston’s ho-hum march to the playoffs. And once the Astros get there, the trio of Cole, Greinke, and Justin Verlander should strike fear into opposing teams’ hearts; batters who have had to face Cole are well acquainted with the feeling.