Why Cole's fastball is in a league of its own

June 30th, 2020

only tweeted video of a single pitch. But it's the pitch -- the pitch that defines his transformation into a $300 million ace.

One elevated four-seamer, thrown under the backdrop of Yankee Stadium, was the perfect preview of what Yankees fans will get to watch when Cole eventually takes the mound.

You just don't see a fastball like this every day. Cole's four-seamer is one of baseball's nastiest pitches. It was the foundation of his 326-strikeout season, MLB's most overpowering season since Randy Johnson in 2002. Cole struck out 178 batters on his four-seamer alone; he got 344 swings-and-misses with it. Those are the highest totals by any pitcher in any season of the pitch-tracking era, which goes back to 2008.

Think about all the big fastballs the Yankees had even before Cole came to New York. Cole's is the best of them all. Here's why.

He dials it up better than James Paxton

Velocity is king. Everyone's eyes jump to the radar gun, and nothing brings a crowd alive like a pitcher who dials up the heat for a big strikeout in a big spot.

The Yankees got one of those pitchers when they traded for , who's not only one of the hardest-throwing lefty starters in general, but a pitcher whose velocity gets higher and higher as a game goes on -- until he's throwing 99 mph to close out a no-hitter. But Cole does the same thing, and he does it better. Even Paxton doesn't let it eat like Cole.

Cole's 97.1 mph fastball velocity is top-five among starting pitchers to begin with -- and he raises it to 97.6 mph in the seventh inning or later, and to 98.1 mph with two strikes. The average velocity of Cole's 178 four-seamer strikeouts last season? 98.3 mph -- No. 1 among starters.

Highest 4-seam velocity on strikeouts, SP, 2019

  1. Gerrit Cole: 98.3 mph (178 K)
  2. Noah Syndergaard: 98.2 mph (40 K)
  3. Nathan Eovaldi: 97.8 mph (29 K)
  4. Tyler Glasnow: 97.6 mph (31 K)
  5. Jacob deGrom: 97.4 mph (80 K)

And there's the max velo: Cole was the only starting pitcher to hit 101 mph last season, and that pitch was a strikeout. He reached triple digits 18 times; no other starter did it more than five (Paxton did once). He had each of the top-five fastest strikeout pitches by a starting pitcher, all in excess of 100 mph.

He lets it ride better than Luis Severino

But Cole's fastball explosiveness is more than velocity. To show why, let's compare him to the Yankees' other flamethrowing right-handed starter: , who'd be the team's second ace if he were at full strength and who, when healthy, has the raw velo to equal Cole's.

Severino also sits in the high 90s. He can also reach triple digits. But his fastball isn't the same swing-and-miss pitch as Cole's. Why?

The key is Cole's spin. Cole throws a true "rising fastball," the prototypical strikeout pitch. His spin rate and pure backspin are just as extreme as his velocity, and the combination takes him to a different level.

Here's a look at Cole's four-seamer in 2019 vs. Severino's in 2018 (his last full season):

Velocity: Cole -- 97.1 mph | Severino -- 97.6 mph
Spin rate: Cole -- 2,530 rpm | Severino -- 2,365 rpm
Active spin: Cole -- 97.1% | Severino -- 79.8%
Rise: Cole -- +2.8 inches above avg. | Severino -- +1.1 inches above avg.
Whiff rate: Cole -- 37.6% | Severino -- 20.2%

Severino's fastball was half a tick faster than Cole's on average, but his spin was much lower -- Cole's is top-five among regular starters, while Severino's is more toward average. And check out the "active spin," which is just the amount of spin that contributes to a pitch's movement (for a four-seamer, the truer the backspin, the more active spin you'll get). Nearly all of Cole's four-seam spin adds to its rising fastball effect, making it the most devastating swing-and-miss fastball thrown by any starting pitcher.

When hitters swung at Cole's fastball in 2019, they whiffed nearly twice as often as when they swung at Severino's fastball in 2018. Cole's and Severino's four-seamers, even with the same elite velocity, were in different leagues.

He blows hitters away better than Aroldis Chapman

This is the big one. has one of the defining fastballs in MLB history. He's thrown 105 mph. But right now, Cole's fastball is better even than Chapman's.

At his peak with the Reds, when he was averaging over 100 mph for entire seasons and striking out over 100 batters a year, Chapman's fastball was more dominant than Cole's. But over his last season or two with the Yankees, Chapman's lost a little of his consistent velocity. As his average dipped to 98.0 mph in 2019, and Cole's rose, Cole overtook Chapman.

Make no mistake, these are both elite fastballs. But Chapman's four-seam whiff rate and putaway rate -- that's just how often he throws a fastball with two strikes and gets the K -- have both dipped under 25% entering 2020, when once upon a time he got over 40% whiffs and put over 30% of hitters away.

Cole's whiff rate and putaway rate have jumped up to 37.6% and 32.8%, respectively. As he joins the Yankees, his fastball outperforms Chapman's at getting both the swing and miss and the strikeout.

Cole uses his high-velocity, high-spin four-seamer to relentlessly attack the top of the zone, where that velocity and spin is most effective. He elevated 58.2% of his fastballs last season, while Chapman, whose command can be spotty, only elevated 40.8% of his, when he threw high fastballs over half the time the previous two years.

Cole gets the most out of his stuff. Chapman can't always say the same. Though Chapman can, on individual pitches, reach back for more velocity than Cole is capable of, Cole's fastball on the whole has become a superior pitch.