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Rays Playoffs: How to beat Gerrit Cole

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It ain’t easy facing him.

MLB: Wild Card-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Last year the Tampa Bay Rays lost in the American League Division Series against the Houston Astros after two very strong starts by Gerrit Cole. In games two and five he threw 15.2 innings while allowing only one run in securing two Astros victories. His only blemish was a game five homer by Eric Sogard.

Last winter the New York Yankees signed Cole to the largest contract for a pitcher in Major League history. The primary reason was to lead a Yankees rotation in the playoffs and moments just like this.

This year the Rays have found much more success against Cole. To be fair it would be extremely difficult to find less success, but they did make Cole work. In three starts he allowed nine runs in 16.1 innings (4.96 ERA/5.15 FIP/2.94 xFIP). He allowed 20 hits of which 11 went for extra bases including five homers.

The Rays never put a ton of runs on the board against Cole with four runs being the high water mark in a game, but they forced him to throw a lot of pitches. Only once did Cole throw more than 5.0 innings against the Rays this season, and he threw 103+ pitches in each outing. In the only start the Yankees won he was forced out of the game with 107 pitches thrown in 4.2 innings, failing to qualify for the win.

Gerrit Cole’s Repertoire

2020 Gerrit Cole Pitch Mix

Pitch Usage % Ave Velo Max Velo Whiff %
Pitch Usage % Ave Velo Max Velo Whiff %
Fourseam 52.92% 97.05 100.62 14.60%
Slider 23.58% 89.07 92.73 26.48%
Curve 17.58% 83.66 88.20 17.76%
Changeup 5.92% 88.80 91.32 16.67%

A high octane fastball that sits in the upper 90s and can reach over 100 mph is Cole’s he primary weapon of choice. It’s thrown about half the time and generally in the upper part of the zone. 14.60% whiff rate is impressive for a fastball.

Cole’s slider that sits in the 88-91 range is his primary weapon of choice. It’s a pitch that’s thrown about a quarter of the time and gets whiffs around a quarter of the time it’s thrown. It’s a pitch that typically has platoon splits.

Cole’s curveball is thrown very hard coming in the low to mid 80s. For most pitchers who thrown in the upper 90s this would be closer to slider speed. It generates less swings than his slider, and far less whiffs. It’s a fine pitch, but is generally thrown more to steal a strike than as a pitch designed to get a swing.

Cole’s fourth pitch is a changeup that sees relatively little use. It’s a platoon pitch and teams have been reluctant to stack lefties against Cole. It’s a solid pitch that isn’t that far off from his slider without the downside against lefties.

Platoons

This year hitters have been much more successful platooning against Cole.

Right handed batters have been shut down with a .201/.240/.340 line and .250 wOBA and left handed batters have hit him relatively hard with a .191/.264/.500 line and .319 wOBA. The major difference is an ISO over double at .309 by left handed batters including 9 of his 14 homers allowed.

Of course as with all 2020 stats much less taking splits of these small samples these are not typical.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Since being traded to the Astros before the 2018 season he has allowed a .266 wOBA to right handed batters and a .253 woBA to left handed batters. Showing some reverse splits, but nothing too out of line to make you want to play hitters that have beneficial matchups for themselves.

In the three games against Cole this year the Rays have sent four left handed non-catchers in the lineup. In the last start they started Michael Perez giving them a fifth left handed hitter, where they started Mike Zunino in the two prior starts. Ji-Man Choi and Kevin Kiermaier were the only two left handed bats to start all three games. Brandon Lowe and Joey Wendle started two while Yoshi Tsutsugo and Austin Meadows started once.

As of now it’s unknown whether Meadows will be activated for this series, but I don’t think he makes the start. I do think the Rays start Choi, Kiermaier, B. Lowe, and Wendle, though.

The question then comes to whether you start Perez over Zunino behind the plate. My guess is the Rays choose defense and go with Zunino. This is a familiar matchup and I don’t expect them to deviate from their game plan.

Cole’s Approach

In his first start of the season Cole pounded the zone with fastballs. 65 of his 107 pitches were fastballs.

Cole struck out 10 of the 21 batters faced, but the Rays forced him to throw pitches even if it didn’t lead to base runners as he only walked one batter and he was forced out of the game before completing the fifth inning. The most interesting note of the game was he didn’t throw a single changeup.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

In Cole’s second start against the Rays he once again struck out ten Rays, but this time he was able to face 27 batters and made his strongest outing of the year against the Rays. The Rays put up two runs in 6.2 innings. He dropped his fastball rate down to roughly 50%. His pitch mix looked very similar to his overall line for the year.

In his last start the Rays got to Cole. The Rays hit two homers and scored four runs. Cole still got seven strikeouts in 5.0 innings. The big problem was he didn’t throw strikes and walked four batters. Cole brought out his changeup with over 12% usage.

It makes sense that he threw more strikeouts as he faced more left handers than typical and once again made it exactly three time through the lineup facing 27 batters.

Rays Approach

The Rays have approached Cole similarly to how they have faced most pitchers this year. They worked the pitch counts and force them to throw a lot of pitches even if it means striking out.

Generally Cole has very good control and if you get to two strikes he very likely to send you back to the dugout with a strikeout. So the Rays need to balance aggressiveness with forcing the Yankees to go to their bullpen early in the series.

The key will be swinging at strikes and taking advantage of the pitches he does leave over the plate while not chasing pitching out of the zone.

This is much easier said than done, but the Yankees will face a similar task in preparing to face Blake Snell.