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Gerrit Cole And the Pirate Way

Watch Gerrit Cole pitch and you might come away expecting different numbers on the back of his baseball card. He’s 96 mph with the fastball and his third-best pitch looks like this. You’d think he’d be racking up the strikeouts.

But Cole is striking out fewer batters than league-average. And that’s just as he wants it — to an extent. His team, in fact, is probably proud of that statistic. You might even call it the Pirate Way.

That Cole still throws his fastball more than two-thirds of the time and has a 50% ground-ball rate cannot solely be put on the Pirates, of course. Cole says he was just as much of a ground-ball guy in college. And, in an interview late last month, he told me his delivery is “built around” his fastball. “Pretty much my success is built off of fastball command,” he said. “I kind of just let the off-speed pitches show up when they do.”

If he threw the slider, the changeup and the curveball more, Cole would get more strikeouts. That much is known. Those three pitches get three times the whiffs of his fastballs. And they don’t get terrible ground-ball rates, either. Yes, his sinker gets grounders 59% of the time, but his slider and curve both get more than 50% grounders, too. So the restraint — he doesn’t throw any of the three more than 15% of the time — is not just about getting ground balls.

The Pirates’ starters lead baseball in ground-ball rate (by almost five percentage points over the Cardinals), so obviously they stress grounders. But Pittsburgh also is sixth in the league in two-seamer percentage, so the team’s approach might dial down to pitch selection. Simply put, the Pirates like fastballs.

Cole agreed. “That’s all they preach is ground balls,” he said. “Ground balls and fastball efficiency, really, trying to create plane with the fastball. That creates sustainability. When you come up with a faster breaking ball, that’s good. But in the long run, for the guys who pitch for a long time, it boils down to fastball command.”

We’ve seen some of this from other organizations. For example, my colleague Jeff Zimmerman showed that Oakland general manager Billy Beane‘s preference for pitchers with command leads to better health. And the idea is simple on one front: You throw the fastball more than any other pitch; make sure you repeat those mechanics so you’re on solid footing for the rest of the game.

But when it comes to efficiency, it’s a question of scale. Here are the top six and bottom six teams in ground-ball rate, and their pitches-per-batter-faced.

Team K% GB% Pitches/BF
Pirates 20.1% 52.9% 3.754
Cardinals 20.5% 48.8% 3.798
Rockies 17.1% 47.3% 3.783
Dodgers 21.2% 46.9% 3.856
Tigers 22.6% 45.9% 3.943
Dbacks 19.7% 45.9% 3.768
20.2% 48.0% 3.817
Team K% GB% Pitches/BF
Athletics 18.5% 38.9% 3.823
Giants 20.8% 41.6% 3.856
Orioles 18.3% 41.8% 3.872
Royals 19.9% 42.0% 3.898
White Sox 20.8% 42.4% 3.935
Angels 19.0% 42.5% 3.867
19.6% 41.5% 3.875

The difference between the top fifth of the league in ground-ball rates and the bottom fifth of the league is .058 pitches per batter faced. (Repeat this with strikeout rate, and the difference between the top tier strikeout teams and the bottom tier is .046 pitches per batter faced.) Of course, most teams have faced more than 5,000 batters at this point, so that’s saved the top ground-ball teams almost 300 pitches as a staff. Divvy that up among various pitchers, and you’re talking about saving starting pitchers between 30 and 40 pitches a year simply by focusing on ground balls.

Of course, the batting average on those ground balls in play is meaningful. After all, what’s 40 pitches saved if you have to face more batters? A strikeout is fascist because doesn’t allow the chance of a ducksnort. The Pirates have the fourth-best BABIP in the league, though, and their aggressive shifting is a big part of that. As Cole said, “For the most part, we call the game and we play the game according to how we are going to position our fielders. It’s been working out for us.”

But there might be a little give in that philosophy. Cole’s 21% strikeout rate in the second half has actually been above-average, and that’s corresponded with a reduction in fastball percentage. If you add his fastballs before July 15th (his first seven starts), you see he threw his fastball 77% of the time. Since then, he’s only thrown one of his fastballs 67% of the time. His slider percentage has gone up from 6% to 21% to eat up most of that difference, as you can see in the chart below. Cole said his slider was his “most consistent” secondary pitch, so this makes sense.

Before 7/15 After 7/15
CH 5% CH 2%
FA 3% FA 4%
SL 6% SL 21%
FF 63% FF 40%
FT 11% FT 23%
CB 12% CB 9%

By pairing on-field shifting with an emphasis on fastballs — and ground-balls in particular — the Pirates lead the league in fewest pitches per out. The team’s approach is working so far, and it seems well-grounded in the best available research: Ot might keep their pitchers healthier, and at the very least it promotes healthy practices. When it comes to individual pitchers like Cole, though, it’s probably a good idea he’s allowed some give when it comes to the Pirate Way. Because, you know, the batting average on a strikeout is still zero.