Written by: Estee Rivera (@esteerivera42)
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Let me start by saying I think Gerrit Cole is the best pitcher in baseball. He is an intellectual pitcher, too. When I get a chance to listen to him talk about his craft, I lock in. He understands himself. He knows when he is on, but more importantly, he knows what he needs to adjust when he is off. Any change he makes typically has good reasoning to it.
If you watched his Opening Day start on Thursday, you already know it was electric. He cruised through the Nationals lineup with just one hiccup, via a first inning, Adam Eaton home run launched one into the empty stands. On the surface, his line was reminiscent of 2019 Gerrit Cole. 5 innings, 1 hit, 5 strikeouts and 75 pitches before the rain poured down in DC. A 5-inning gem by any definition.
In the fifth inning, I decided to see what Twitter had to say about Cole’s performance. As a Yankee fan who follows many other Yankee fans, I saw happiness and excitement. But then I came across a tweet from Eugene Bleecker of 108 Performance. If you are not familiar with Bleecker, he is the Director of Player Development of a private training facility in California. They focus on applying data and technology into player development.
108 is ahead of the curve on many player development topics. Led by Bleecker, they incorporate biomechanics into their development programs, and they are very good at it. For somebody who does not have a science background, they make it easy to understand what they are doing and how they do it.
Now, back to Gerrit Cole.
Say what you want, think what you want. I don’t need to see one more pitch & I don’t care what his velo is. Gerrit Cole was moving far better last year. It was more efficient, with more controlled directional force…. before you argue, go look for yourself….
— Eugene Bleecker (@108_Performance) July 23, 2020
Bleecker tweeted in the first inning of the Yanks-Nats game that he saw an irregularity in Cole’s delivery, relative to 2019. The focus of the tweet and the thread was on Cole’s movement quality. Not the pitches, but his body. Specifically, he mentioned the change in Cole’s landing at front foot strike (when his lead foot hits the ground after his stride). Bleecker said this, “He isn’t getting the same joint centration between left femur & pelvis so he isn’t in the same kind of position to stop.” Don’t worry, I’ll explain what ‘joint centration’ is momentarily. I asked Bleecker to clarify this for the novice biomechanics learner.
Bleecker said this change has been evident in Cole’s mechanics since Spring Training. This may seem weird, but the way in which a pitcher stops his body when he hits the ground is a crucial part of connecting the kinetic chain. The kinetic chain is a term used to describe human movement. In other words, the order at which our joints and other body segments move is very important. Each person is different, but there are general guidelines for the sequencing of body parts and joints when throwing or hitting a baseball. The more controlled a pitcher is when he strikes the ground, the more efficiently he can whip his trunk in the proper direction with maximum force towards the plate.
The angle at which Cole’s femur and pelvis are when he hits the ground has changed. That is making his trunk carry too far “forward” leading to an arm drag. To the eye, it looks like he is further towards his front side when releasing the ball. Bleecker originally pointed this out on July 2nd, when the Yankees released a video of Cole throwing in an intrasquad. Watch for yourself and try to pick up on Cole’s torso further over his front foot more so than usual.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) July 2, 2020
There can be several different, negative effects of this change, most notably loss in control and higher effort levels to maintain high velocity. Bleecker stated Cole was moving like this as early as Spring Training. Cole is very in tune with his mechanics and identity as a pitcher, so it is possible this change was intentional. But we won’t know unless we ask Cole himself. As I said earlier, he is an intellectual pitcher, which makes me think he had valid reasoning behind the change. But as Bleecker points out, this change may not be for the better. Arm drag and a top-heavy delivery are not optimal for most pitchers. Of course, Cole is not most pitchers.
If you really really locked into Cole’s pitches on Thursday night, you noticed he was missing middle to arm side a little more than expected. Here is one where Gary Sanchez sets up low and away and Cole misses middle-middle.
Here is a hanging slider meant to go towards the back-knee area.
And another one that ended up on the opposite (arm-side) of the plate.
You may be thinking, “well Estee, some of these pitches were effective and still got outs.” And I would agree with you. When you have the pure stuff that Cole possesses, you are going to get away with way more misses than the average pitcher. A fastball with that spin rate and spin efficiency is almost impossible to hit when it is running up into your hands, especially when you have to simultaneously worry about what pitch is actually coming. Perhaps Cole’s arsenal is simply good enough to not be penalized despite a couple of biomechanical imperfections that didn’t appear until this preseason. We have the rest of the summer to find out.
But the point is that he has changed and those changes—so far only in the short-term—have led to some mistakes. I know we’re dealing with a minuscule in-game sample, just 75 pitches to judge from so far. However, once we remember this change has been apparent since Spring Training, we can assume the output we’ve received is representative of the new mechanical nuances. A larger sample should only confirm this hunch. Unfortunately, we have no data from the spring or his intra-squad outings. Data is wonderful and insightful, but if we are truly judging a pitcher’s mechanics, we need more than just data. Video will be the best teacher.
Obviously none of our naked eyes feature high-speed cameras, but it sure does look to me that, in Game 5 of the World Series last season, Cole’s arm was moving a little bit faster. When we freeze on Cole at foot strike in 2019 vs. 2020, it is hard to tell the difference in positioning.
Maybe the new Hawk-Eye update could provide us with foot strike position at landing. You know, the new tracking system powering Statcast? I was lucky enough to work on the implementation of Hawk-Eye in my stint at MLBAM. The beauty of this system is its increased capabilities of tracking players, which could lead to data that can be harnessed to assess player mechanics. If we knew the orientation of Cole’s pelvis and femur, then we would have more insight into how prevalent the change actually is. The two pictures below don’t give us as much information as we would want.
If we freeze at release point (below), we begin to see some differences. I’d love to see what the community has to so say about this, but I see the top-heavy nature of his torso over his lead leg in the left-hand picture.
A good visual representation of this is the numbers on his jersey. On the Yankees jersey, the numbers look close to parallel with the ground. On the Astros jersey, they are slightly more perpendicular. This is a sign of his lead-leg block (strength at which his lead leg resists his upper body movement) not working as efficiently as last year. If your joint centration is working at a different angle, there is more room for leaks in the kinetic chain.
Courtesy of Pitching Ninja, we have a good quality GIF of Astros Cole from the front side. A very impressive lead-led block followed by a beautiful whip of the torso. Everything is working in the right direction with optimal speed. Now refer back to that Yankees intra-squad video posted above. It is far away, and the quality is not perfect, but Bleecker is spot on with his assessment. If you pause on the beginning of the video, you can see the top-heavy nature of Cole’s torso.
Gerrit Cole, Mechanics (97mph Fastball/Front view) pic.twitter.com/unOAQTDDyw
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 5, 2018
Even though it is the slightest difference, I should note that his release point Thursday night was slightly off his 2019 average.
Let’s look at Release Point X position. In 2019 (left), it was -2.03; in his Yankees debut (right) it was -1.89, meaning he is releasing the ball more towards the right-handed batters box this year. Then if we take a look at his Release Point Z position, it went from 5.86 in 2019 to 5.55 in 2020, so he released the ball a little closer to the ground Thursday than he did last season. If we think about this in terms of his mechanical change, it makes sense. The measurements could be slightly off since tracking systems switched from 2019 to 2020, but the change tracks with the mechanics.
His arm is dragging, and he is further over his lead-leg than usual, resulting in his arm releasing further to the right and more towards the ground. Let’s think about it in terms of a clock. If last year he was releasing at 1 o’clock, then this year he is releasing at 2 o’clock.
The Baseball Savant Release Point maps above make it easier to see. The release point shifted diagonally downwards from 2019 (left) to 2020 (right). Again, I really do not know if this will affect his immediate performance. Bleecker made it clear that this change will require a higher effort level from Cole and that might not play out in the short-term, or even this 60-game sprint of a season. He looked nasty in his debut, and even his misses usually play in his favor. What if he is tunneling those misses on the arm-side? Does that back-up slider still play if he is missing fastballs up-and-in to righties? He is Gerrit Cole. This won’t revert him back to Pittsburgh form, that’s for sure. But this change will alter something in his game. It might not matter, but it is hard to doubt the opinion of some of the best in the business.
Only time will tell.
Follow P365 MLB Analyst Estee Rivera on Twitter! @esteerivera42
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Featured image courtesy of photographer Mark Brown and Getty Images