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The Red Sox should be looking for heat from Gerrit Cole

But it’s much easier said than done.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

In previewing Gerrit Cole, it’s hard to break down exactly what a team can do to beat him because it’s not really in their hands. Cole is a special pitcher, even without sticky stuff, as we’ll get to in a minute. This was his worst year since leaving Pittsburgh and he’s still going to lead the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio and receive Cy Young votes. Some pitchers were seemingly propped up entirely by sticky stuff, like Miguel Castro or James Karinchak, but despite his despondence back in June when asked if he had ever used Spider Tack, Cole has not turned into a pumpkin after the league began enforcing their rules.

Gerrit Cole Pre/Post Ban Stats

Stat Pre-Ban Post-Ban
Stat Pre-Ban Post-Ban
ERA 2.31 3.97
FIP 2.12 3.58
ERA- 54 92
FIP- 49 82
K% 36.7 31.1
BB% 3.6 7.2
HR/9 0.88 1.44

If you want to point at his ERA and say he stinks now, I’d point you to Baseball Prospectus’ DRA. The end-points don’t match up perfectly with the end of his alleged Spider Tack usage, but his DRA was virtually identical between the first and second half. The strikeout and walk rates are still elite, and the stuff matches. The most noticeable change here is the spike in home run rate, which is his Achilles’ heel and how the Sox have been able to score so many runs against him this year.

The biggest advantage of grip-enhancing substances is increased spin, most useful on high fastballs that help give the pitch extra hum to induce swings and misses high in the zone. Here are the zone charts detailing Cole’s whiff rates on four-seam fastballs pre- and post- spin rate drop:

There’s a lot less red high and over the heart of the zone, but Cole has made up for it by getting whiffs elsewhere in the zone with his fastball. If the glowing red arm-side and middle and arm-side up in the zone isn’t enough, the overall whiff rate on his fastball hasn’t slipped much at all.

Gerrit Cole Pre/Post Ban Whiff%

Pitch Type Whiif% Pre-Ban Post-Ban
Pitch Type Whiif% Pre-Ban Post-Ban
Four-Seam 14.70% 14.04%
Curveball 11.52% 11.26%
Slider 18.95% 20.00%
Changeup 20.86% 15.52%

Because of this, there hasn’t been much reason for him to change his approach a la Garrett Richards, who had to make over everything to adjust after losing his sticky stuff. The percentage of Cole’s four-seam fastball usage up in the zone has gone from 55.91% to 50.97%.

All of this to say: Gerrit Cole is still the same dominant pitcher he’s been since leaving Pittsburgh after 2017 in the same ways. He may not be as effective right now in totality as he’s been in the recent past, but not having sticky stuff hasn’t stopped him from dominating. Take his 129-pitch complete game shutout against the AL West champion Astros or a 15 strikeout game against the Angels where he struck out Shohei Ohtani three times. There were even times during Red Sox starts at Fenway where he got bombed where he looked disgusting.

There’s hope, but this won’t be easy. The Sox need Cole to leave fastballs over the plate to the right hitters and they need to pull the trigger. Their best hope to get to him is for Rafael Devers to be up with men on and to pounce on a stray fastball as he has already done twice this year (and once on a changeup). With the way this offense has performed lately, it might seem like the odds of that happening are slim, but baseball history is full of teams that got inexplicably hot for October and this offense is talented, particularly at the top and in the middle of the order.