Breaking down Cole's 100 mph pitch
The 100 mph club is light in membership among major league starting pitchers. Only two — Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole and Mets ace Matt Harvey — have touched 100 mph this season, according to the pitch tracking tool PITCHf/x. · Starting pitchers combined to throw one pitch reaching 100 mph entering June 21, according to ESPN. Cole threw eight such pitches that night. · The Tribune-Review contacted Baseball Prospectus pitching mechanics analyst Doug Thorburn to understand how Cole produces a 100 mph fastball. What we learned was reaching 100 mph not only requires physical strength but also a proper employment of physics and mechanical efficiency.
How do you throw 100 mph as Cole has done 13 times this season? You begin with balance. Balance is a key component for a pitcher throughout his delivery, but it starts with a balance point, where a pitcher's ability to repeat a throwing motion — and control a 100 mph fastball — begins.
“(Balance) is crucial from leg lift to when the foot comes back in contact with the ground,” Thorburn said. “Cole is very stable during the leg-lift phase of his delivery, with the strength to maintain balance along with a relatively high leg kick. He begins with a strong move to the plate, leading with the front hip while he directs his energy toward the target.”
After Cole was selected No. 1 in 2011 out of UCLA, Thorburn gave Cole's balance a grade of 55 on baseball's 20-to-80 scouting scale. Thorburn said his balance has improved to become nearly elite. Thorburn now grades Cole's balance as 65.
“He had a little wavering early on, but he's actually stabilized that,” Thorburn said.
In Cole's final Triple-A start June 5, his 88th pitch left his hand at 99 mph. In his next start — his major league debut — his 81st and final pitch traveled 98 mph.
How does Cole generate not only rare velocity but also hold it late into games?
Cole is built like a Big Ten tight end. He's listed at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and generates much of his power from his lower body and core.
“Guys that really throw hard have great balance of strength. Strength in the back side, shoulder muscles, and core strength, which is where Cole really does well,” Thorburn said. “He has this amazing core strength.”
Strength combined with efficient mechanics.
“Some of it is natural strength, but some of it is mechanical efficiency,” Thorburn said. “Cole is pretty similar to how Roger Clemens did it. Clemens was all (lower body). I'm looking at what the body is doing, and the efficiency of energy and transfer, and I see some similarities.”
Cole's average fastball velocity of 95.4 mph, the fastest among major league starting pitchers, is not the product of a substantial scapular load, which is the pinching in of the shoulder blades during the throwing motion.
Scapular loading is a technique some pitchers use to increase velocity, but there is research that has tied substantial scapular load to increased injury risk. Extreme scapular loading includes the “inverted W” trait, which describes a pitcher who raises his elbows above shoulder level prior to releasing the ball, a component of the deliveries of Nationals standout Stephen Strasburg and former Cubs phenom Mark Prior.
“It's not heavy load or aggressive in any way,” Thorburn said about Cole. “Some guys are more hips. Some guys are more shoulders. Aroldis Chapman does both. … Relying on (lower body) rather than arm strength takes some of the kinetic toll off of your arm.”
Cole said he always has tried to keep his mechanics simple.
“I was fortunate to be taught to throw the ball the right way at a young age,” Cole said. “My dad and pitching coach taught me when I was younger.”
Cole threw a 101.88 mph fastball on June 21 at the Angels, according to Brooks Baseball. It was the fastest pitch thrown by a major league starter not named Justin Verlander in the past five seasons, according to ESPN.
What is most responsible for the velocity is Cole's torque. His belt buckle is nearly facing home plate while his shoulders are facing toward third base.
“Imagine a broom handle going through the shoulders and a broom handle going through the hip, and imagine an angle between them creating an X,” Thorburn said. “His hip broom is really turned, and his upper-body broom hasn't even begun to go yet. … Cole's belt buckle is almost facing the target, and you can see his arm has just begun to fire. His upper body has just begun to fire. You see that lower-body hip twist. He's really using core strength to generate that velocity.”
To throw 100 mph and command the velocity — Cole averages fewer than two walks per nine innings — the end point is as important as the starting point.
“He keeps his foot anchored to the ground after the ball leaves has hand,” Thorburn said. “The best pitchers do this. If his back foot leaves (the ground) before he releases the baseball, that means he's tilted out front like a keel of the boat.
“He finishes with excellent form into release point, efficiently transferring his energy to the baseball. Release-point extension is an underappreciated aspect of effective pitching, with benefits that include higher perceived velocity.”
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Cole's velocity is the result of an ideal pitching package.
“He has a lot of things the best power pitchers have,” Huntington said. “Go back to Nolan Ryan and Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia in his heyday. They have a combination of all the things. There isn't one thing that allows them to throw 100.”