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It’s only two starts, against a couple of below-average offenses, but Gerrit Cole’s first fortnight with the Astros has offered reason to believe that he’ll become for them what he never quite became for the Pirates: a full-fledged ace. He’s fanned 22 opposing batters in 14 innings, allowing just one run and 10 total baserunners.

Some of what he’s done is easy to explain, too. He’s increased his slider usage, at the expense of his fastball, and in particular he’s all but shelved his sinker (that favorite toy of erstwhile Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage) and focused on his four-seam heater. We all expected that to happen.

Other changes Cole has made, however, are harder to describe, and they suggest that the Astros’ ability to makeover and make the most of top-flight starting pitchers runs even deeper than we thought.

One problem Cole had during his last two seasons with the Pirates was that his fastballs were only good at missing barrels. Despite elite velocity and a wipeout slider, Cole struck out a batter per inning in just one season while with Pittsburgh—and that was his truncated 2014 campaign.

One reason for that was that his fastball lacked the kind of hop that induces whiffs. The total spin rate on his four-seamer was uninspiring, and the vertical movement on the pitch was mediocre. Things have changed.

Below are Cole’s fastball spin, movement, and whiff rate by year, from 2015-2018:

Season 4-Seam FB Avg. Spin Rate (RPM) Spin Axis (Degrees) Vertical Movement Whiff%
2015 1636 2157 222.2 7.8 8.4
2016 773 2178 215.4 8.8 6.9
2017 1601 2163 221.9 8.7 9.1
2018 100 2331 214.8 10.2 18.8

My inexpert eye detects no significant difference in Cole’s mechanics. There’s been a noticeable change to his vertical release point, but a small one. More than anything else, he seems to be repeating that release a bit more consistently. Without a change in arm slot or basic mechanics, Cole has overhauled his fastball. He’s not throwing it harder—the opposite is true, though he’s still sitting on the sexy side of 95 miles per hour—but he’s getting more spin on the pitch, and that spin is closer to unadulterated backspin.

The combination of those things is giving his fastball better rising action than it’s had at any point in his big-league career. That movement (plus batters trying to be ready for the more serious threat of a breaking ball) is resulting in the kind of swing-and-miss results a fastball like his should always have enjoyed.

By the way, some of the same things can be said of Cole’s curveball, too, He’s throwing it more often than he has since he was just breaking into the majors, and with good reason. For one thing, it plays better off his predominantly four-seam, higher-rising heater than it did off his sluggish sinker. For another, it’s diving more than it has in the past.

Again, although he’s thrown just 30 total curves so far in 2018, we find that his spin rate on the pitch is higher, and that the pitch has taken on a truer 12-to-6 shape. It’s also dipped in velocity, more than his other stuff has, so it’s a really nasty change of pace for Cole, underscoring the extent to which the pitch was being wasted while he toiled under Searage and tried to dominate with Searage’s fastball-heavy, sinker-leaning philosophy.

The question, I guess, is from where these increases in spin rate are coming. The Astros enjoyed a similar spin-fueled breakout from Brad Peacock last year, but Peacock’s path to that epiphany is a bit clearer. He lowered his arm slot, something a few other guys who also boosted their spin also did in 2017. The people (like Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball) who make their living by espousing the value of spin rate and helping pitchers harness it remain mostly agnostic about any single means of improving spin rate. It’s clear, though, that certain pitchers have spin potential that lies dormant, until they’re able to make the adjustments in arm path or grip that unlock it.

For the most part, it seems to be the former. Perhaps, in some fairly subtle way, Cole is more mechanically efficient now, freer with the arm. Perhaps the Astros are doing some high-level, in-house pitch design voodoo that allows them to get the most out of every hurler on whom they lay their hands. (That would help explain not only Peacock, but Charlie Morton, and hell, even Justin Verlander’s very productive adjustments near the end of last season.)

In any case, Cole has been a monster so far, and if this is remotely sustainable the Astros are truly the best team in baseball. It’s increasingly clear, with each bat Cole’s heater misses, that the Pirates were unable to get what they should have gotten from their former no. 1 overall pick, and it’s exciting to see that Cole’s sensational stuff didn’t atrophy during years of misguided pressure to be a certain, less sensational type of pitcher.

Thank you for reading

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Great stuff!
michael bradley
The Pirates needed Cole to stay healthy. Sliders don't keep you healthy. They needed to deal him at max value before Scott Boras made him a FA. Really not that complicated.
Rod Henderson
Great article, thanks for posting. Brent Strom working some serious magic here --- Peacock doing great, Devo great, McCullers continues to evolve, and Verlander back to ace form after some recent mediocre Tigers years. The only thing he hasn't seem to have solved is Giles, making every close situation a wild ride for Astros fans! If he can tweak Giles too, Astros will be even more of a force to be reckoned with.
Daniel Nelson
It's amazing what the Astros can do with a few little adjustments. Watching Rangers and Padres swing right under that high heater was something we'd never seen from Cole before. And his sinker was never really an effective pitch, so it's good he ditched it. He's going to be a star in Houston.
Cole and Morton are both doing better without Searage.
Maybe he's just been released from unrealistic expectations while playing for a bad team.
Why would you come to a site like this, read the article, and then say that?
Do you have a different opinion? Or would you just like to forward semi-rhetorical critiques of comments by others? My comment wasn't snarky or comic, just pointing out a rather obvious possibility that the article failed to consider.

Don't you think it is rather silly to draw any kind of broad conclusion about Cole's performance based on two starts? That's incredibly dumb, coming from "a site like this" that ought to know better, attenuated only slightly by the author mentioning sample size in the opening sentence, then blithely ignoring it for the rest of the piece while he pursues what sounds suspiciously like facts being fitting to a foregone conclusion. Voodoo gets more consideration than the possibility that Cole is just having a good week.
Aaron Barbara
so spin rate is voodoo and a whiff rate twice his career norm is irrelevant? The Astros resurrecting or drastically improving almost every pitcher they touch also irrelevant? Definitely a small sample size. He's having a good week is not compelling or even interesting.
David Bowers
Brent Strom is intimately associated with Ron Wolforth's Texas Baseball Ranch. The winter of 2016-17 Verlander attended the Ranch in an attempt to get his "mojo" back. I believe this is much more than coincidence. Follow the clues . . .