How worried should Yankees be about Gerrit Cole’s home run surge?
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How worried should Yankees be about Gerrit Cole’s home run surge?

May 23, 2023

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Or are we making a mountain out of a molehill?

Gerrit Cole was unlikely to go the entire season without surrendering a home run. That does not make the recent surge in balls leaving the park against him any less alarming.

If it weren't for Aaron Judge's historic home run chase last season, the dominant storyline of the campaign would’ve regarded Cole's propensity for giving up home runs. He served up an AL-leading 33 taters in his worst full season since he was a member of the Pirates, blooming into a narrative that tarnished Cole's ace status in the minds of many fans — one which I’m certain the pitcher in question grew tired fielding questions about. It's worth remembering that home runs on their own aren't an indicator of diminished ability — Justin Verlander led MLB with 36 in his Cy Young-winning campaign of 2019 — but in the broader context of expectations surrounding the man billed as the best starter in baseball, they certainly became the issue around which disillusioned fans coalesced their anger.

In a post-mortem of his 2022 campaign, the always-reflective Cole identified a three-step sequence of events that he felt led to a disproportionate spike in balls leaving the yard. He described the way that losing count leverage shoehorned him into predictable situations. This means a fastball count from the hitter's perspective, and as one of the preeminent fastball-throwers of his era, Cole often obliged. The final nail in the coffin saw Cole lose command at these most inopportune of moments, creating a perfect storm: a hitter hunting fastball in a fastball count, getting a fastball in a prime hitting zone, and letting it fly.

For what it's worth, Aaron Boone also added his own reflections on his starter's season. He wondered whether Cole became predictable at times. He hinted at Cole's tendency to let minor inconveniences snowball into mind worms that impacted his ability to execute on the mound. Finally, he pointed to Cole's tendency to try to bully his way out of situations with his fastball rather than just pitch.

As if to dispel last year's narrative as purely a figment of the imagination, Cole refused to surrender a home run across his first seven starts. But then they returned, with Cole giving up a pair of home runs in consecutive starts against the Rays before repeating the feat in consecutive starts against the Orioles and Padres. What's behind this latest surge in long balls and is it related to his issues from last year? Perhaps comparing the games in which he struggled the most last season to this latest stretch will provide a clue.

On the FOX broadcast of the Dodgers game, Cole talked about needing to become more balanced in the set position — he feels that the slight bit of unbalance is hampering his ability to command to the corners. It seems we have a decent roadmap to guide us through our investigation as there appears to be a tie-in with the command issues from 2022 where he worked into unfavorable counts and then missed his spot, catching too much of the zone in a predictable fastball count.

First, we’ll start with a zoomed-out view. Below is a chart of every home run against Cole in 2022, followed by one for 2023. You’ll notice that half the home runs came against the four-seamer last year, whereas 6-of-8 (75 percent) have come off the heater this year.

We can throw out that infamous game against the Twins — you know, the one where he gave up five home runs including three in a row to lead off the first inning — as he himself has identified that contest as something of an anomaly relative to the rest of his home-run plagued outings on account of him losing all feel for the cutter and slider, causing them to run armside. However, it might be productive to look at the two starts postdating that outing in which he gave up three home runs — August 3rd against the Mariners and September 13th against the Red Sox — to suss out Where it All Goes Wrong™ for Cole.

We’ll start with the Mariners game. Cole gave up three first inning bombs in that one as well, and I’d like to dissect the middle one, where Carlos Santana went back-to-back with Eugenio Suárez. Here are the pitches Cole threw in the AB:

Followed by video of the home run:

This is conveniently a word-for-word demonstration of Cole's offseason diagnosis. He pitches into a hitter's count, Santana sits fastball, and Cole misses Higashioka's low-and-away target with said fastball, grooving the pitch middle-middle.

Moving on to the game at Boston, we see the pattern repeat itself on the first of his three home runs:

Cole falls behind 2-0 and misses his low-and-away spot with a fastball, instead finding the heart of Triston Casas’ hot zone, and the ball's out in a flash.

Finally we have Reese McGuire's home run an inning later. It's a slight variation on the theme, but the similarities are still evident.

To be able to pull 96 right on the hands and keep it fair to right at Fenway tells me McGuire was hunting fastball all the way. It's a perfectly executed pitch in terms of Cole hitting his spot, but perhaps the non-competitive breaking ball that preceded it in addition to events from earlier in the game made a fastball in that situation eminently predictable.

And now on to four of the home runs against Cole's fastball this year. We’ll begin with his home start against the Rays, and the solo home runs surrendered to Randy Arozarena and Jose Siri in the first and second innings respectively.

They’re practically carbon copies of each other. Three straight fastballs to each batter, culminating in a pair of missed spots in 1-1 counts after speeding the hitters’ bats up.

It's rinse and repeat with the following pair of home runs, first to Cedric Mullins and then to Jake Cronenworth five days later.

Here we also see a little of what Boone was talking about when referring to Cole trying to bully his way out of an AB. He fails to land any of his breaking pitches for strikes to Mullins and Cronenworth. Both batters are no doubt aware of this fact and perhaps it allows them to cheat that little bit toward the fastball. Cole, perhaps frustrated at the ineffectiveness of his slider and knuckle curve, almost says "screw it" and just hoofs his fastball down the pipe as if attempting to overpower his opponent.

I’d like to make one final observation unrelated to the fastball. Baseball announcers love to point out how it's unacceptable to get beat on your worst pitch. One wishes Cole could take that nugget of wisdom to heart when it comes to his changeup. Of all pitchers to throw at least 750 changeups since the start of 2020, Cole is tied for the sixteenth-highest home run rate off the changeup. However, all of the 16 pitchers ahead of him on that list throw their changeup considerably more than Cole — he uses it 10 percent of the time while the next-lowest usage rate on the list is 15.3 percent — so you could say a disproportionately high number of his changeups clear the fence. Here are the nine home runs Cole has given up against the pitch since joining the Yankees.

In my humble opinion, Cole just does not have adequate enough command of the pitch, which combined with its woeful vertical movement profile conspires to turn the offspeed into a batting practice fastball on too many occasions. One of those is to Jarred Kelenic last year and another is to Gunnar Henderson this year. If you’re giving up a home run off the changeup to at the time the most embattled hitter in baseball and a rookie struggling to find his footing in the bigs, that's probably a sign to pump the breaks on using the pitch.

If anything, the fact that Cole is self-aware enough to identify some of the causes behinds his struggles is encouraging. It's better to have a known problem one can fix than to blindly search for the problem. Time will tell whether he's able to make the necessary adjustments.