Eight starts into his record contract, Yankees ace Gerrit Cole is sitting on a 3.91 ERA and an MLB-high 12 home runs allowed. As recently as two starts ago he had a 2.75 ERA and looked every bit like the Cy Young contender he is expected to be, but back-to-back tough outings have put a dent in his numbers. 

The Rays tagged Cole for four runs and 12 baserunners in five innings Monday.

Cole surrendered his 11th and 12th home runs of the season Monday and he’s allowed at least one home run in all eight starts this year. Last season, when he was as dominant as any pitcher on the planet, Cole still allowed 29 homers in 212 1/3 innings, or one every 7 1/3 innings or so. This year he’s allowing one homer a little more than every four innings.

“It’s been back to back starts where it felt really good and thought that had progressed with the stuff in each of the last few outings,” Cole told reporters, including NJ.com’s Brendan Kuty, following Monday’s game. “To not get rewarded for it and I guess probably underperform relative to the type of stuff and the ability to throw a lot of pitches at a high quality level, it eats at me a little bit. With what we had today, should have pitched better.”  

The home runs are a symptom of a larger problem: Cole is allowing much more hard contact this season. Batters are squaring him up more often than the last two years and the result is not just more home runs allowed, but more hits allowed in general. Opponents are hitting .224 against Cole this year. It was .192 from 2018-19. That’s a 32-point jump. It’s significant.

2018

89.1 mph

39.8%

.332

2019

87.6 mph

35.5%

.343

2020

91.2 mph

48.2%

.494

Hard-hit rate is the percentage of batted balls with a 95 mph exit velocity or better, and, Monday night, the Rays put 10 of their 15 balls in play against Cole at 95 mph or higher, and eight of their 15 at 100 mph or higher. That’s just not supposed to happen to a pitcher with Cole’s stuff. He’s electric and the measurables (velocity, spin rate) are right in line with last year. That all checks out.

Anecdotally, it appears Cole’s command is not quite as crisp this year as in the past, particularly with his secondary pitches. He’s had trouble landing his curveball and slider for strikes, which makes it that much easier for the hitter to sit fastball in the zone. When that happens, hard contact usually follows, no matter how powerful the fastball.

Gerrit Cole is throwing fewer breaking balls in the zone in 2020.
Baseball Savant

Any time a great pitcher struggles, it is suggested he might be tipping his pitches. Cole shot that down — “I think (pitchers) all pretty much tip every game, one way or another,” he told NorthJersey.com’s Pete Caldera — and instead chalked the home runs and hard contact up to “whenever I’m over the plate, the hitter’s very certain of what’s coming.”

That’s because he can only reliably throw his fastball for a strike at the moment. As good as his secondary stuff is — and it is still great as his 31.9 percent strikeout rate suggests — Cole isn’t giving hitters much of a reason to respect it. You have to be able to drop breaking balls in for a strike once in a while to keep hitters honest, and he can’t do that right now. Hitters can sit dead red.

Cole’s issues throwing breaking balls for strikes could be attributed to any number of things, starting with the shutdown and unusual ramp-up period to this season. He’s also coming off the largest workload of his career by far (249 innings including postseason in 2019), and it might just be a mechanic slump. Those happen. Maybe he’s nursing an injury. You’d be surprised what pitchers pitch through.

Whatever it is, Cole’s overall command has not been as sharp as usual this season, particularly with his secondary stuff. He seems to have become predictable with his fastball, and when pitchers get predictable, bad things usually happen. The velocity and spin gives Cole a greater margin of error than most. Lately though, every mistake has been hammered, and many are leaving the park.

“The adjustment is either to throw a different pitch or move the sights or just be better,” Cole told Kuty. “… I think mechanically, it was as effortless as it’s been this year so far. That’s part of one of the things Aaron (Boone) said he was so encouraged about it, same with (pitching coach Matt Blake). Just how easy and fluid the ball was coming out. Just got to command the zone better, command the leverage better.”  

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