Gerrit Cole didn’t make it out of the fifth inning yesterday and the Pirates dropped their first game of this hugely important May series, 7-2. “Hugely important” is a loaded term, because, as a percentage of remaining games, this game isn't very significant, but it’s huge in that it’s one of only 19 games against the Cubs this year in what will hopefully become a hotly contested race to the top of the NL Central/all of baseball.
The recap of this game is mostly that the Cubs got on base, got hits with guys on base, and scored more runs than the Pirates. Other than Jordy Mercer’s 3-3 game and Andrew McCutchen’s home run, there wasn’t much to write home about on the Pirates’ side of things.
What I do want to focus on is Gerrit Cole, who struggled throughout the game with letting guys on base, six of whom ultimately scored on 6 hits and 4 walks over his 4 2/3 innings. He was kind of all over the place with his command, especially with his fastball tailing up and away out of the zone to righties:
The 4 walks are particularly concerning; Cole has only had 4 walks in a start once before in his career and he at least made it through 7 full innings in that game. This is also Cole’s second start this season (out of 5 career) in which he didn’t make it out of the fifth inning; while this could partially be due to the changing landscape of starting pitcher usage in Major League Baseball, this is still concerning.
So what do we make of this? It’s tough to say too much, but Cole doesn’t seem to be the same pitcher that we saw go out and dominate the last two years. His control seems to be off this year, and this lack of efficiency makes it difficult for him to go deep in games. Additionally, for a pitcher who relies on his swing-and-miss stuff, he has an all-time low O-Swing% (percentage of pitches batters swing at outside the zone) of 27.5%, which is much lower than his 31.1% last year. Also, hitters are getting much harder hits off of Cole this year, with a 35% hard hit rate, much higher than his career line of 28.3%. The small sample size caveats apply here, but these things are still concerning, as Cole is the main engine driving the starting rotation and for the team to be successful, he needs to be successful.
What’s causing this? A thorough evaluation might be required, but a cursory glance at Cole’s Brooks Baseball page shows one important difference between his previous seasons and this year. Check out the horizontal release point of his pitches throughout his career:
You’ll notice that the month of April had him at an all-time high, and this trend continue into his first start after the calendar turned over to May. Release points changes (and heights in general) have been linked to elbow injuries. These were primarily for vertical release points, for which Cole has been relatively consistent throughout his career, but the point remains the same that there may be a mechanical issue with Cole’s movement that is causing him to relinquish some of his control while pitching, injury-related or not.
Cole needs to fix whatever is going on with him if this team wants to have a shot at the division this year; the reinforcements from Indianapolis are anything but guaranteed, and the push for the division might be like pushing a round peg into a square hole by the time the June Super Two deadline rolls around. Let’s hope he gets things going.
I won’t post a separate preview for today’s game, but Jake Arrieta is pitching and he’s been outstanding in whatever set of games you want to look at. A win is achievable, but only if the Pirates offense can get at least a few runs against Arrieta (or push his pitch count high enough to tag the bullpen, which is something at which this team has excelled) or Jon Niese pitches out of his mind. First pitch is at 7:05pm EDT; a win here would be a good start (and, in fact, the only possible way) to coming back for the series win against the Cubs.