Across the country from Yankee Stadium, up and over from Orange Lutheran High School, the UCLA baseball program pays special attention every time Gerrit Cole takes the mound.
No flipping, either, until Cole has completely finished his workday.
“We tape his postgame interviews and we show them to the staff,” John Savage, UCLA’s longtime head baseball coach, said in a recent telephone interview. “This guy’s still living in our world, in a way.”
The Yankees committed $324 million to Cole in December 2019 (last year’s pandemic shutdown dropped the total to $301.3 million) primarily because of the excellence he displays in the main event, the game itself. Yet to fully appreciate the right-hander’s proficiency, his ambition and his passion, you must watch those news conferences, too. Cole talks pitching like Doc Brown talked time travel in “Back to the Future.” Even if you don’t always grasp the terminology, be it “tunneling” or “1.21 gigawatts,” you feed off the enthusiasm and want to learn more to keep up with it.
“I know that I do have a gift,” Cole said in a recent Zoom interview, “and so I pour as much as I can into that to ultimately try to sap everything out of it. I couldn’t tell you what the mix [of physical talent and mental application] is, and regardless of what the mix is, every component, every element, is equally important. They all have to work together.”
Cole picked the right time to bring his personality, his pitching mind, into Major League Baseball. With public and proprietary pitching metrics expanding at dizzying speeds, he takes pride in leaving no data point unchecked and no conversation, be it with a teammate, coach or analyst, unheld.
“There are quite a bit smarter people than me, but I am curious,” he said. “I do like to read and learn about things.”
While much of his current work incorporates degrees of math and science, Cole called history his favorite school subject as he established himself as a bona fide pitching prospect, prompting the Yankees to draft him 28th overall out of Orange (Calif.) Lutheran in the 2008 amateur draft. He memorably didn’t allow the Yankees to make him an offer, heading instead to college.
If the Yankees spotted the raw material in high school, Cole used his time in Westwood to become a far more complete product.
“I think the discipline of it really came in when I started playing for Coach Savage at UCLA and the program that he had there,” Cole said. “That really guided us a lot, and it was impactful for me.”
“He needed to grow mentally within the game, socially — the whole building of a young man, the building of a major league pitcher,” Savage said. “He had a very, very young mind at the time and was very talented. He needed a lot of help really just within game management, pitchability, repeatability, fastball command, changeup, you name it.”
Cole instantly became UCLA’s top starter, meaning he started on Fridays (Trevor Bauer started on Saturdays). The day after his starts, “[Savage] would give us an evaluation form,” Cole recalled. “It had some statistics in terms of percentage of strikes, hard-hit balls, advantageous counts, overall location grade. And then he added a secondary comments section for how well we managed our emotions. How well we executed our game plan. Delivery-wise, what we think could make it better. And it was a way to evaluate on a start-by-start [basis] and it … gave me, at least, a broader picture of what we should be striving for.”
The choice of college ball over the Yankees’ minor leagues couldn’t have worked out any better for Cole, whom the Pirates selected first overall in the 2011 draft (Bauer went third overall, to the Diamondbacks).
“[With Pittsburgh,] we continued advancement of the delivery, learning how to make sustainable moves to the plate,” Cole said. “Trying to create more angles. Obviously we focused a lot on the two-seam at the bottom of the zone, but we stressed fastball command, especially to the inside part of the plate. Utilizing all four corners. That was a big part of my foundation getting to pro ball, really executing that. Quite frankly, regardless of the type of fastball I’ve thrown, it’s a strength that’s never really left me.” Cole finished fourth in the 2015 National League Cy Young Award voting.
The type of fastball he threw changed with the 2018 trade to the Astros, who, citing their analysis of his work with Pittsburgh, advised him to cut back on his sinker and throw more four-seam fastballs with more spin. Said Cole: “Analytics in terms of what your strengths are started in Houston,” as opposed to the general analytic principles the Pirates preached to all of their charges. With Houston, Cole rose to the game’s elite, ranking fifth and second, respectively, on the 2018 and 2019 American League Cy Young ballots.
With the Yankees, Cole completely junked his two-seamer and embraced a partnership with his rookie pitching coach, Matt Blake, who landed the job not because of his own pitching accomplishments (he didn’t play professional ball), but rather because of his understanding of biomechanics and modern baseball technology and his adeptness at communicating the pertinent information to his pitchers. Cole placed fourth in the 2020 AL Cy Young vote and shined in the postseason, posting a 2.95 ERA in three starts.
His elevated profile has brought more attention upon him, which brings us back to those news conferences and Cole’s standout performances there. In the 30-year-old’s mind, “This is kind of general talk,” he said. Compared to most in his subspecies, though, his lingo to the masses stands out for its sophistication. Here are three examples:
1. Tunneling: “Tunneling is just making two pitches look like the same [pitch]. To me, when I would watch the pitcher throw the ball on the outside corner and then throw a slider that looked like the pitch they threw before on the outside corner, [that’s tunneling]. I don’t know how deep you can go into tunneling, but I know that by and large, you want to deceive the hitter by making him think the pitch is something different. And so throwing pitches that look the same is, in a broader sense, deception in general. Tunneling is just a different way for a pitcher to visualize what a hitter is seeing.”
2. Pitch shape: “We’re trying to describe the break. The illusion you’re creating with the spin. The illusion of a rising fastball or a breaking ball that has a big hump in it, and we can quantify actually how much the ball is breaking, to the inch, almost. This TrackMan/Hawk-Eye stuff is incredible.
“But there’s also something to be said where the hitter’s standing there, he’s like, ‘I’ve got to make that ball start over my head in order for it to be a strike.’ So when we’re talking about shaping a pitch, you’re talking about creating a break that makes that illusion, that makes that hitter honor something that’s going to start in this area [Cole held his left arm high over his head].”
3. Lanes: “There are a lot of different levels to a delivery. It’s almost a form of art. But in the end, we have to generate force linearly, straight to the plate. And so you want to funnel whatever that concoction is, that part of your delivery that you use to load that torque, you want to make sure you’re directing that within a lane, so to say. So we have a lane on the outside corner, the extension side of the plate, which would be your glove side, and arm-side lane. So you want to be as crisp and defined into those lanes as you can and then that fine-tunes your pitches. Where your pitches are finishing.”
Given the way Cole thinks about his craft, given the rapid speed at which pitching analytics have grown, his interviewer posited, surely he already thought about the next frontier in measurement. The next way to get better. The next term to include in his news conferences.
“You just want all my secrets, put them on the front page of The New York Post?” he asked, smiling, before continuing, “I will just say that we’re always forward-thinking. The game is always evolving. If you’re not trying to make gains, you’re going to fall behind.
“We could talk about all this stuff, right? But in the end, out of 100-some-odd pitches that you throw that night, the hitter’s going to have a pretty good damn idea what you’re going to throw, and you’re going to have to throw it, and he’s not going to be surprised, and no one in the rest of the park is going to be surprised, and it comes down to, can you really put it in that small section of area that he can’t defend within the zone. But nobody’s tricked. Nobody’s out-analytic-ed. That’s just good old-fashioned baseball.
“And so you can’t ever lose sight of that, but I’m always exploring ways to try to get better.”
This pitching mind is wide open, looking for edges everywhere, dropping some knowledge on the rest of us. Now we’ll get to see it in action, fingers crossed, for a full season.
A look at some of the common terms used by Gerrit Cole and other modern-day pitchers in baseball’s constant analytical evolution:
— Arm side: A pitcher’s inside corner to a like-handed hitter.
— Glove side (or extension side): A pitcher’s outside corner to a like-handed hitter.
— Hawk-Eye: Optical technology utilized to measure pitches’ movement as well as batted balls’ flights.
— Lane: The path to a pitch en route to its destination. You try to keep a pitch in its lane in order to hit your spot.
— Shape: A pitch’s flight path, essentially. How dramatically does it break? Does it “rise”?
— TrackMan: The portable equivalent of Hawk-Eye.
— Tunneling: Making your fastball and off-speed stuff look the same out of a pitcher’s arm in an attempt to deceive the hitter.