TAMPA — Gerrit Cole is throwing. Not a ball. This is pantomime. In front of his locker. He is doing Roger Clemens — barrel chest out — and then Bob Gibson — the whip-like snap.
He morphs into a righty Steve Carlton, mentioning that during the offseason he had stumbled into a replay of 1983 World Series Game 3 and became as absorbed watching Carlton “pulling through wildy” at the end of his motion as he has been in his first Yankees camp glued to video of Clemens and Gibson and Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez.
Cole has been hunting what commonality historically elite pitchers share to create durability. Like a detective recalling a favorite cracked case, he speaks of the eureka moments noticing how the greats kept their lead glove hand off their body and in counter-balance to their raised pitching arm — “It is an equal and opposite kind of thing.” He believes that led to better displacement of energy and stress. It has led him to strengthening his core to allow this in his own game while detailing the hunger for detail Cole has to improve on his passion.
And “passion” is not a random word in that sentence. Get Cole going on the subject of pitching and expect long words in bountiful sentences accentuated by Gibson’s pitching motion. To say Cole loves pitching — everything about pitching — is like saying Romeo loved Juliet; like somehow we need a stronger word than even “love.”
“What have I learned about Gerrit Cole?” Brett Gardner said rhetorically. “He seems next level with preparation and with how he thinks and sees the game.”
Obviously, the most attractive part of Cole’s game is not his brain. He was talented enough to be drafted first overall, blessed enough to deliver fastballs last year harder on average than any starter not named Noah Syndergaard. The talent is why there will be excitement Monday night when Cole makes his Yankees spring debut against the Pirates, who made him the first pick in 2011.
But the Yankees’ comfort in bestowing the largest pitching deal ever ($324 million) and going nine years was about more than Cole’s right arm. They knew he fixated on maximizing his skill and longevity; how divorced he was from just rolling out his talent and hoping for the best. This Yankees camp has only corroborated that. First-year pitching coach Matt Blake says no pitcher has watched more bullpen sessions of others to pick up tips. Cole has quizzed Yankees hitters on their approach against him to better understand the batters’ mindsets. He has devoured the Yankees’ analytics and learned, in particular, about how to use one pitch in a specific area in a different way. It is the only time in a 30-minute interview that Cole does not expound exuberantly on his craft — shhhh, he doesn’t want the secret out to hitters.
“There is no complacency of ‘I have elite stuff and I am going to throw it every fifth day,’ ” Blake said. “It’s as intentional and detail oriented in those five days as anyone in the game.”
Cole’s fervor for information began young. His father, Mark, charted pitches on an Excel spreadsheet when his son was 13 as a way to better manage increases in workload with age. Thus, began an infatuation with optimizing skill that carried Cole through UCLA and the Pirates and found perfect place, perfect time with the Astros.
That word “Astros” is loaded right now because of the sign-stealing scandal mainly centered in 2017 and attempted again in 2018, Cole’s first year (and to which Cole has maintained he had no knowledge). But the organization also was on the frontier of pitch design, usage patterns and ways to improve velocity and break. Cole already was throwing more four-seam fastballs up in the zone in 2017 as diversity to his key sinker. Houston showed Cole data that this was his best pitch, and Cole found that not only to be true in effectiveness, but in providing less wear on his body.
He rose in 2018 and especially 2019 to a class with Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander as the majors’ best starters. For Cole, though, throwing high fastballs was not enough. He delved further into shaping pitches, better understanding what to throw and when and to which zone.
And he had the recipe of athleticism, muscle memory, intellect, curiosity and creativity to amplify his talent. He could repeat his delivery. He could feel when something like his hand placement or landing foot was off. He could self-correct immediately. He could handle reams of video and data. He was tireless when it came to staying ahead of hitters who were going to school on him.
“I think so,” Cole said when asked if he thought he was more curious than most pitchers. “But also I can articulate it. It makes sense to me. Some people this overwhelms them, so it would be smarter for them not to waste their time on it.”
And with that Cole took the most expensive right arm ever — the one he used to imitate Clemens and Gibson — and points to the head he is jamming to get his baseball Ph.D. (Doctor of Pitching).
“I got a lot of stuff going on in here,” Cole said with a chuckle. “So, I need to feed the animal a little bit.”