Cole is in the midst of another promising stretch as a reliever. Can he sustain it this time?
About roughly one year ago, I wrote about how the Yankees acquisition of A.J. Cole had gone under-the-radar. Thanks to some added velocity he found in the Yankees bullpen, along with mixing up his pitch usage, the early results on his transformation indicated he could be a possible relief ace in the making. At the time of that article, Cole had put up a 0.61 ERA and 2.63 FIP in 14 2⁄3 innings.
After starting to throw his best pitch, his slider, more often, everything looked promising. After that though, everything went downhill for him. In his 23 1⁄3 innings following, he put up a 6.56 ERA and 6.33 FIP, walking more batters and allowing an absurd 3.1 home runs per nine innings.
The main culprit in Cole’s demise was his fastball, and without a fastball to set up his above-average slider, his best secondary offering lost its effectiveness. The end results for his four-seamer last season ended up being horrid. Among 495 pitchers who threw at least 100 four-seamers last year, his ranked…
- 490th in xwOBA
- 492nd in xBA
- 486th in xSLG
In plate appearances ending in Cole’s four-seamer last season, batters walked 11.4 percent of the time and only struck out in 6.8 percent of those plate appearances. In the often times he allowed contact on the pitch, he was getting crushed. Overall, the offering allowed a horrendous line of .513/.568/1.051, good for a 335 wRC+ against.
Because Cole couldn’t get the results on his four-seamer under control, a once promising start turned into a quick exit, as he ended up being DFA’d the following January. He found himself on his feet again quickly though, as the Indians claimed him off waivers the following week. They subsequently ended up designating him for assignment in February, but ended up out-righting him to the minors after he cleared waivers.
If Cole was going to make it back to the majors, he needed to show some improvement against lesser competition first. Luckily for him, he pitched well enough in Spring Training to stay on the Indians radar (8 IP, 2 ER, 9 SO, 1 BB) and set himself up for a fair opportunity in Triple-A. In 13 outings there, he pitched to the tune of a 3.18 ERA and 3.72 FIP, striking out exactly a third of the batters he faced while keeping the walks under control.
Cole’s improvements in Triple-A earned him another call to the major league bullpen for the Indians last month, where he’s remained since. Just like last year, he’s making encouraging strides early on with his new team, perhaps even more promising than the ones last year.
If Cole was going to succeed again, he would have to improve his primary fastball. So far, he’s done more than that, completely flipping the script on his once dreaded four-seamer. Thus far, he’s allowed a much improved .185/.185/.407 slashline on the offering. Perhaps even more important is that he’s missing more bats with it, striking out 40.7 percent of the batters he’s ended plate appearances with it in. This is really the first time he’s done this in his whole career too.
So, what is causing this sudden change? The slight bump in average velocity from 94 to 95 miles per hour helps. But the biggest thing I noticed was Cole’s increase in spin, relative to velocity. His revolutions per minute divided by miles per hour (RPM/MPH) on his four-seamer has comfortably reached a new high.
- 2015: 21.95 RPM/MPH
- 2016: 22.90 RPM/MPH
- 2017: 22.66 RRM/MPH
- 2018: 23.79 RPM/MPH
- 2019: 25.49 RPM/MPH
Cole has gone from ranking in the bottom third of baseball in RPM/MPH last year to ranking in the fourth this year. Among 359 pitchers with at least 20 percent four-seamers thrown, his gain ranks as the fourth largest.
The improvements in Cole’s fastball have allowed him to rely more on the pitch too. He’s double the usage on his four-seamer exactly, going from 25.4 percent to 50.8 percent. All together, he’s abandoned his sinker and cut the usage on his fringe curveball, still allowing for high usage on his best secondary, his slider.
We’ll see how A.J. Cole looks in a larger sample size and if hitters can start to pick up the added spin on his fastball. But if he can continue to look good over an extended period of time, his role in the Indians bullpen could become much bigger in a crucial time. It remains to be seen if he can handle it this time.