Q&A: How Gerrit Cole unlocked his potential to dominate

Ten starts into his stint with the Houston Astros after an offseason trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Gerrit Cole is enjoying remarkable success with the reigning champs. He’s posting a career-best 1.86 ERA, second in the American League behind teammate Justin Verlander. He also has never been so overpowering before — his 13.4 K/9 leads the AL and is second only to Washington’s Max Scherzer in the major leagues, but he leads Scherzer and all of MLB in strikeout percentage, whiffing 40.2 percent of all opposing batters. And on May 4, Cole spun his first career shutout while striking out 16 Diamondbacks. Earlier this season, Marly Rivera caught up with the former first overall pick from the 2011 draft on his renaissance in Houston.

What was the hardest thing for you to deal with when you went from the only organization you had known to another? How did the Astros make that transition easier for you?

“I think getting acclimated to the clubhouse and then figuring out how you fit in. Logistics sometimes can be challenging, moving cities and whatnot, but in this case, it was actually a little easier for us being closer to home.

“And the adjustment was easier by maybe just having an open mind and a lot of help from my teammates, a lot of help from the organization. I’ve just enjoyed learning so much. I’ve enjoyed hearing perspectives of players that I respect and I have respected from afar as I was coming up in my career.”

Like who?

  • At 35, the Astros ace may be on his way to a season for the ages, posting a 1.08 ERA over his first 11 starts.

  • In his first year with Houston, Gerrit Cole has been so dominant that this looks like something more than simply a hot streak.

  • He’s pitched for 11 teams over 21 seasons, winning 242 games and a Cy Young — but there’s so much more to “Big Sexy” than mere numbers.

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“Like getting a chance to watch Jose [Altuve] play every day and Carlos [Correa]; Justin [Verlander] and Dallas [Keuchel]; also someone like Josh Reddick. I just appreciate their effort and their attitude, and their preparation is second to none as a group that I’ve ever seen. It’s really just a joy to watch every day. It’s that special of a group. Jose is that special of an individual. So humble. Just really quite amazing.”

Is there something that maybe surprised you? Maybe with someone like Altuve?

“Yes — the humbleness. He’s a superstar. He’s got a talent that I have not seen maybe since, a completely different hitter, but the bat-to-ball thing reminds me of Vladimir Guerrero almost. That weird ability to know how to touch the baseball. There’s only one other person that comes to mind when I think of that.

“It’s kind of unique talent. He’s probably the only one in the game that can do that. He could act like he’s the only person in the world really that has a talent like that, but instead he sits there and wants to have breakfast and just talk about what’s going on in your life.”

You also singled out Josh Reddick.

“He struck me as a grinder, but really Josh sets the tone, and George [Springer] does a great job about that, as well. I mean, the whole outfield does a phenomenal job, but the way that Josh just gets after the baseball.

“At one point during spring training, and this is just spring training, we gave up three doubles in a row or something down the line. If you watched him [go after each one of those balls] — in a game that doesn’t count — you can’t really see a difference in his effort. His attention to detail … he’s either drilling the cutoff man or he’s throwing right through and making an accurate throw. It’s the effort, it’s another level. And they all do it.

Who helped you become the pitcher you are today?

“There have been a lot of people along the road. It started with my first pitching coach, Zak Doan, who I still keep in contact every day, and then Coach [John] Savage at UCLA was very influential.

“In Pittsburgh, [pitching coach] Ray [Searage] and Jim Benedict were very influential; also working with A.J. [Burnett], [Francisco] Liriano and Charlie [Morton] and Russell Martin, those guys were really influential to me. It was a similar type of atmosphere to this clubhouse when I was getting introduced to the big leagues over there; they just taught me how to be a professional from a really young age. Also Neil Walker, Tony Watson, Justin Morneau, for the brief second he was there, A.J., Andrew [McCutchen], Jared Hughes.”

What do you mean the atmosphere here reminds you of Pittsburgh?

“Every good team is going to have a good culture in the clubhouse. We play 162 of these things, plus the postseason, and I think a lot of people get caught up in the analytics of it and the numbers because you can find whatever it is you’re looking for. You can find some sort of trend, you can find some sort of edge. But in the end like everybody wins 60 and everybody loses 60, and it’s what you do with the other 40 that separates you.

“When you got to scrap out a win or you communicate how this pitcher attacked you in this certain situation to pass it on to your teammate or vice-versa from pitcher to pitcher, those are the little things that give you the competitive edge in those ballgames. You can have really good statistics, which are really good, and it’s a serious advantage, but when push comes to shove, it’s about players communicating and players playing together. That’s always going to be a common theme: You will have a really solid clubhouse when you have a good squad.”

What has been the key to your success here in Houston, especially how quickly you adapted to an entirely different league?

“A lot of credit goes to my training staff and a lot of the people I work with. I was hurt in 2016, and it made me look at longevity and sustainability. The stuff that I was doing wasn’t working for me long term. So, I had to make a change. And David Freese was the guy that brought me over to these guys. They continually put me in a better spot. That’s given me the physical ability to go out and apply what I’ve learned here in such a short time. It’s basically throwing the four-seam. Run the four-seam more.”

Why has the four-seam fastball been such a successful pitch for you?

“I used to throw a four-seam and the two-seam, and I used to probably lean on the two-seam almost 50 percent of the time or more. When I’d go into the room and have a meeting with them [the Astros coaching staff], they’d show me the data on my four-seam, and then they would show me what my best four-seams looked like. Like, they have video of it, and then they have statistics on it.”

So it was the first time you’ve ever seen those stats?

“Yes, absolutely. They’d say here are the top 15 percent of the four-seams you’ve thrown your entire career, and this is what it looks like on the stat sheet; this is what the rotation looks like; this is what the ball looks like coming out of your hand. [They’d tell me] if you can strive to chase that, as opposed to some of the other fastballs that I throw, you don’t have to hit spots as much, and you can just attack the zone in these areas. Just attack the zone.”

Astros aces Justin Verlander, left, Gerrit Cole, center, and Dallas Keuchel jog together during spring training. Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

So this was a revelation for you? Something you had never seen on paper?

“Yes. I mean, Charlie [Morton] kind of gave me a heads-up before I got in. I remember maybe like the first or second day, I was playing catch with Justin, after that meeting. When you’re playing catch with a pitcher, there’s an element of ‘training’ your mind. You just play catch like we all do, but at the same time you’re going to work.

“Justin was asking questions like, ‘What do you want me to look for?’ And I was like, ‘Maybe [that the ball is coming out] free and clear, something that looks it’s timed up, that looks clean.’ And he was, ‘Ok, what about backspin? What kind of spin you want on your ball?’ And I really didn’t know.

“I just came into that meeting, and they talked to me about backspin and the four-seam and throwing it more. So then I remembered playing catch with Justin and when the ball is spinning true and getting the action that he is looking for in his fastball and, ultimately, what they’re looking for in mine. He would give me a nod or like some sort of body language that, ‘That was the right read.'”

It’s interesting that another pitcher can help you read just while you’re playing catch.

“We’re working together. I’m looking at his because that’s what he wants me to look for on his. So now I am now playing catch, seeing what the ball should be doing, and I am also throwing the ball and seeing what my ball looks like out of my hand and basically what I am trying to chase, what I am trying to see at the end of the pitch. And it just started making sense. And that wasn’t really a fastball that I had thrown very much in my career.”

So do you believe the influence of the rest of the starters in this rotation has made you a better pitcher?

“They’ve taught me how to change speeds. They’ve taught me the art of striking people out. It’s about the art of changing speeds and the art of messing hitters’ timing up and not always feeding into contact, but sometimes pitching to weak contact or just making them change speeds. A little bit of this theory on effective velocity, a little bit of this theory on tunneling. Those are things that I’ve really picked up on. I don’t lean on them 100 percent, but they’ve helped me understand how to go about it and understand how to get better.”

What do you do when you work with pitchers?

“We talk about it. We’ve gone over video together. We’ve gone over scouting reports together. During the spring, the five of us would be in the video room together, looking at stuff. They’d watch my starts in there during spring, or in the dugout, and would give me feedback.

“Justin is such a four-seam-heavy pitcher, so giving me some of his insight into why he chooses certain pitches has been tremendously helpful. The same thing like with Dallas — why he chooses certain pitches. We get the same type of read of the hitter that Dallas does, and maybe he goes a different direction that I do, but we’re seeing the same thing, we’re just taking two different paths to get there because we’re two different pitchers.

“Charlie has just been a huge advocate of trust; trust what they tell you and trust pounding the zone and just be aggressive. And Lance [McCullers Jr.] … I really like Lance. Lance is such a good dude. The main thing I’ve learned from Lance is that there is not a bad count in baseball to throw a curveball [laughs]. You can’t find a bad count to throw a curveball.

“I’ve just taken things from each one of these guys. I have a great environment. I also haven’t pitched against some of these clubs, either. I am not being unrealistic here. It’s a long season.”

Are you the best pitcher you can be right now?

“I don’t think I am far from it. I think this is the best pitcher that I’ve been in my career so far. But it’s not the best that I am going to be. No.”

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