Gerrit Cole’s fastball issue making Yankees’ rebound more challenging

There’s no reason, with half of a drastically reduced season in the books, to think that Gerrit Cole can’t stand the heat.

Throwing the heat, however, has proven surprisingly difficult for the Yankees’ $301.3 million man.

If you’re looking for a reason why Cole has not dominated opponents in his first eight starts as a Yankee (yup, it’s a small sample), at a time when they really could have used such dominance, gaze no further than his fastball, his bread-and-butter pitch that he has struggled to utilize as his primary weapon.

“Tampa Bay has a very good lineup,” a scout who monitors the Yankees said Tuesday on the condition of anonymity. “When you miss your spots, they make you pay. Doesn’t matter how hard you throw it.”

Actually, Cole’s fastball velocity is down slightly, averaging 96.5 mph compared to the 97.1 mph at which he threw it last year, when he helped lead the Astros to the American League pennant with a four-seamer that accounted for 37.1 fewer runs than the average fastball, as per FanGraphs — the best 2019 pitch of any kind in the entire industry by the website’s metrics.

This year, through these eight starts — including his critical, 5-3 loss to the Rays on Monday night at Yankee Stadium (the Yankees’ seventh loss in eight games to these guys) — Cole’s fastball scores at a mere 0.2 runs better than average, which largely explains his modest 3.91 ERA.

Gerrit ColeRobert Sabo

“I think some of those cases where he has been hurt for some slug on the fastball [is] a little combination of a small sample where guys get him, a good plan up there where they’re looking in a certain zone,” Aaron Boone said of Cole on Tuesday, before the Yankees continued their series with the Rays in The Bronx. “Maybe missed location or [he] yanked a pitch into a hot zone that you were trying to go away from. And unfortunately a handful of guys have really taken advantage of a couple pitches and hit some pitches that were actually executed pretty well.”

Entering Tuesday’s actions, the 12 homers Cole had permitted placed him in a tie with Ross Stripling, whom the Dodgers traded to the Blue Jays on Monday, for the most in baseball. Seven of those round-trippers have come off the fastball. Throw in seven doubles, and opponents are slugging .524 on the pitch after tallying a lowly .348 last year (thanks, Statcast).

After Monday’s loss, his second in two starts — he hadn’t done that since his first two starts of 2019 — Cole lamented, “Whenever I’m over the plate, the hitter is very certain of what’s coming.” That set off sirens over one of baseball’s most boring espionage fields: Pitch-tipping!

Cole shrugged off a follow-up question, saying, “I think we all pretty much tip every game one way or another,” and the goal is to minimize it. On Tuesday, Boone added, “I’d like to think we’re as vigilant as it comes with that stuff. … That’s something we’re trying to stay on top of with all of our pitchers, all of our pitchers at the alternate site. That’s something that we talk about all the time.”

Given the sort of attention Cole tends to his craft, it would be a surprise if tipping turned out to be his primary problem. Rather, as the scout said, “His stuff has been as good as ever. It’s been his command in the strike zone. He would probably be the first to admit his mistakes are getting hammered.”

Pretty much. As Cole said Monday, “the handful of pitches that were left over, it’s not a single, it’s a double. It’s extra bases.”

So he’ll do his bullpen work and try to get this right, which would in turn get the Yankees more right than they have been amid a second straight injury epidemic.

“I feel like over time, that’ll kind of work itself out,” Boone said. “As he continues to really get airtight with his execution and his command, you’ll see him go through some dominant stretches.”

If you don’t see that, you’ll see the Yankees continue to sweat their way through this bizarre campaign made even more bizarre by Cole’s heater headaches.

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