The Cleveland Indians Versus Gerrit Cole

On Tuesday, the Cleveland Professional Baseball Club will begin a postseason series with the New York Yankees, albeit a very abridged one. Major League Baseball in augmenting its playoff system in the time of Covid-19 to eight teams in each league, has collapsed an already compressed postseason process to introduce a new round of three-game series, and variance at every turn.

The series will begin with one of the best pitching matchups of the decade, Gerrit Cole, and soon to be 2020 American League Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber. Since the start of 2016, Gerrit Cole is fifth in baseball in fWAR at 20.7 WAR, behind only Scherzer, DeGrom, Sale, and Verlander.

Cole was once again excellent in 2020, even with an unsustainably high home run per fly ball rate of 18.7%. Cole’s arsenal, and usage are provided below.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

As one would expect based on his usage rates above, Cole’s fastball (~97 MPH) and slider (~89 MPH) have been his best pitches in 2020, and ultimately for the past few years.

Before moving further, a few points about the Cleveland offense and usage. First, the Cleveland offense was functionally poor in 2020, with a team wRC+ of 86, good for 27th in baseball.

The offense while being below average in baseball against almost all pitch types (including fourseam fastball) has struggled the most with slider and cutter on a per 100 pitch basis according to Fangraphs. Cole’s slider which hovered at around 25% usage rate in 2020, could be described as a slutter (slider+cutter) with hard horizontal movement. With Cleveland’s struggles against slider/cutter offerings, and Cole’s elite slider, it may be reasonable to expect a usage spike from 25% to 30% or higher.

Time to project the Cleveland lineup:

  1. Francisco Lindor SS
  2. Cesar Hernandez 2B
  3. Jose Ramirez 3B
  4. Carlos Santana 1B
  5. Franmil Reyes DH
  6. Tyler Naquin RF
  7. Roberto Perez C
  8. Josh Naylor LF
  9. Delino Deshields CF

There is a very good chance the team does something different or someone is flipped in the order but this is the basic premise.

Gerrit Cole’s reliance on fastball and slider necessitates that those should be the focal point of any scouting report. Specifically, against left-handed hitters since Lindor (S), Hernandez (S), Ramirez (S), Santana (S), Naquin, and Naylor will all face Cole from the left side.

Cole uses his high-end velocity fastball at the top of the zone, playing up the velocity, and raising the challenge of getting “on-top” of the baseball.

It is worth noting how well Cole commands the fastball up and to the outer third, in part leveraging the velocity, and playing its tunnel well off his slider. The reality is, there just are not many hitters who hit premium velocity on the outer third. One exception may be Jose Ramirez who has a career wRC+ of 152 (.952 OPS) against fourseam fastballs but even he will need Cole to miss waist-high middle-away against velocity at 95 MPH and above.

Whereas Carlos Santana, a traditionally good hitter including fastballs does not handle high-end velocity well, with a wOBA of .299 over his last three seasons against fastball velocity at 95 MPH or above.

However, might Francisco Lindor explode? He is excellent against top end velocity, and succeeds in multiple sectors of the strike zone.

Lindor’s strength against premium velocity will likely lead to progressive pitch usage by the Yankees, especially Cole, reflecting the league wide approach against Lindor who has seen a ~5% increase in breaking balls in 2020, and a similar decrease in fastballs.

Cole’s slider usage to LHP is pictured below, and you will notice that playing off his fastball, Cole hammers the slider down and in to left-handed hitters, to play off his tunnel, and break pitches out of the zone towards the back-foot.

Interestingly, Cesar Hernandez is a solid hitter against the slider but like most hitters, success is related to whether or not Cole will miss his spots by enough. Hernandez covers the bottom two thirds fairly well but Cole will have to miss towards the outer two-thirds to be punished.

As you see above, there is a reason Gerrit Cole is an elite starter and it relates to the delightful pairing of elite stuff, and top-end command. Cole sequences and leverages fastball and slider brilliantly off of each other. While Ramirez, and Lindor can hang in against elite velocity, there are real holes. Tyler Naquin while traditionally useful as a platoon player, has been limited against top-end velocity. Carlos Santana, similarly has been challenged at this velocity range. With Naquin types, the best hope is for Cole to mistakenly throw him a hittable slider.

This Cleveland offense is relatively limited, and it is facing a pitcher equipped to attack their weaknesses. However, for this team, it was always gambling that its stars would be stars at the right time. Francisco Lindor, traditionally valuable against top end velocity has to be aggressive in fastball counts. Jose Ramirez carries a similar role, though there is a real chance the the Yankees pitch around Ramirez to attack Santana. On Tuesday evening, two historically impactful pitchers will square off, and it all may come down to a slider that Gerrit Cole did not quite get on top of.

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