Gerrit Cole's ever-evolving quest to be even greater

Gerrit Cole is talented. Gerrit Cole is curious. And Gerrit Cole is driven. When Cole’s physical skills, his willingness to pursue more information and his passion to succeed are combined, they form an elite pitcher with a keen mind whose goal is to have multiple ways to destroy batters. This Cole creation is about a great pitcher who wants to be even greater.

Everyone dreams. Even superb pitchers like Cole have dreams. When Cole rests his head on the pillow, I imagine he dreams about the kind of start he had in helping the Yankees silence the Orioles, 7-2, on Tuesday night. Cole pitched seven scoreless and nearly flawless innings in which he struck out 13 and didn’t walk a batter. Of his 97 pitches, Cole generated 27 swings and misses, a steady collection of feeble Baltimore swings in the Bronx.

Those dominant statistics need to be part of Cole’s dream, but another crucial part of the dream was the way Cole had command of all four pitches. He didn’t thrive by simply using an overpowering fastball and a nifty slider, which is something he has has done. Cole was a perfectionist and an assassin against the Orioles, throwing his fastball, slider, knuckle curve and changeup aggressively and expertly.

“I felt like he was kind of on the attack all night,” said Manager Aaron Boone.

Cole explained how he kept the Orioles off-balance by attacking the strike zone when they weren’t expecting it and by getting them to chase pitches that were off the plate. I think he was being diplomatic. I’m not sure how the Orioles could be surprised by Cole attacking the zone, but I will admit they did look befuddled by his sliders that resembled fastballs and then dived out of the zone.

Still, the most interesting aspect of Cole’s start, a start when he unleashed his fastest pitch as a Yankee at 100.5 miles per hour, was his increased emphasis on his change up. For the second straight start, Cole tossed 14 change ups, which is more than he threw in any start last year. In fact, he is throwing the change up 14.4 percent of the time, a noticeable boost from 5.6 percent in 2020. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but Cole seems committed to making this pitch another consistent weapon.

“I think the opportunity is presenting itself and we’re just trying to always evolve,” Cole said. “I think last year, when some other pitches weren’t working, we were kind of forced to find opportunities to attack the zone with it. I think I just tried to continue that mentality.”

Always trying to evolve. That is the beauty of Cole, the beauty of the curious mind combining with the amazing arm. When Cole used his changeup on Opening Day against the Blue Jays, I surmised that it was because his slider wasn’t as dependable in the early innings. Now I think Cole’s plan was to establish that pitch as a pitch he can use more often in 2021. While the changeup still ranks behind his fastball, slider and curve, it’s a developing pitch that makes him even more challenging to hit. So far, batters are 0 for 5 with three strikeouts against his changeup, a pitch that has shown some nice fading action.

“He’s got a lot more confidence in it right now this year,” said Kyle Higashioka, who caught Cole on Tuesday. “He’s not afraid to use it in order to keep the hitters off balance.”

After Cole used the changeup sparingly in 2018 and 2019, he said he was forced to use it in some situations last year and he called that a “blessing in disguise.” Based on that test drive in 2020, Cole is searching for more situations to use the pitch and said he is “just trying to get better.” That is a sensational plan. When a pitcher who can pump a fastball at 101 also has the mastery of an 88 M.P.H. changeup, hitters take the kind of swings the Orioles did on Tuesday. Or they don’t swing at all.

Every time Cole throws a changeup, I think of Nolan Ryan. Why? When David Cone and I interviewed Cole in the spring of 2020, he told us an interesting anecdote about how the Hall of Fame pitcher had influenced his changeup.

“Justin (Verlander) and I were talking to Nolan one day and we were showing him both of our changeup grips and I was just kind of asking, ‘I would like to get a little more depth out of my changeup,’ Cole told us. “He was asking me about my grip and he saw that I really put my middle finger kind of right through the center of the ball. And he thought that the middle finger, at least for him, was the finger that generated the most power and the index finger kind of steered the ball.”

“So he suggested kind of what he did, which is where he offset the middle finger a little bit more to the inside of the ball so that he didn’t quite get so much more power coming through the pitch,” Cole added. “But you can still finish the ball with a good snap, like you do on your fastball."

Cole, the forever student, is using that grip on the changeup and is making the pitch a much more critical part of his repertory. Ever evolving, ever adjusting and ever pushing to excel, that’s the pitching story of Gerrit Cole.