Happy Opening Day 2.0! The Yankees and Nationals open the entire 2020 MLB season tonight in D.C., where Gerrit Cole will face off against Max Scherzer. The two recently opposed each other in Game 1 of the 2019 World Series – Scherzer got the win (5.0 IP, 2 ER, 7 K) while Cole was saddled with the loss (7.0 IP, 5 ER, 6 K). The two were supposed to square off again in Game 5 before Scherzer got scratched because of neck spasms.
Both pitchers are considered by almost all to be within the top five pitchers in all of baseball. So in anticipation of this great pitching matchup, let’s take a look at how these two stacked up in 2019.
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After six consecutive seasons of 200+ innings pitched, Scherzer fell below that mark in 2019 after dealing with some back issues in the middle of the season. Cole, on the other hand, put up his third straight season of 200+ innings pitched. He averaged 6.43 innings per start (where partial innings fall between 0 and 1) and 15.83 pitches per inning while Scherzer was just a tick below at 6.38 innings per start and 16.07 pitches per inning.
In terms of rankings throughout baseball, these two pitchers were near the top in almost all categories (MLB ranks among starting pitchers):
While Cole and Scherzer were similar in the fact that they both were at the top of many leaderboards, their styles differed quite a bit. In terms of speed and movement, Scherzer was at 0.18 relative to Cole (on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0, where 1.0 means exactly the same speed and movement as Cole).
As you can see, Cole seemed to have had the superior velocity and movement on his main pitches. Cole gets a little more break on his curveball while Scherzer gets a little more on his slider. There was also more separation in terms of velocity between Cole’s curveball and slider than Scherzer had. This coupled with the fact that Cole had a larger difference in break between his curveball and slider than did Scherzer makes me give the edge to Cole in terms of how effective his breaking pitches were. Of course, Cole was 29 and Scherzer was 35 by the end of the season.
When you look at pitch values, you are essentially looking at how well a pitcher has performed using a certain pitch. Here are those standardized values for Cole and Scherzer in 2019:
By this metric, Cole had a superior fastball and changeup, while Scherzer had better breaking pitches (especially with the slider).
How did hitters fare against Cole and Scherzer’s best pitches? Cole got a 37.6 percent whiff rate on his four-seamer in 2019 – he had never had it above 19.8 percent before going to Houston. His put away rate with that pitcher was by far the best of his career as well. Those two numbers went from 29.7 and 25.0 percent in 2018 to 37.6 and 32.8 percent in 2019. He also recorded 178 strikeouts with his four-seamer alone. That would have ranked 28th in all of baseball, and that was with just one pitch. He was getting 2530 RPM on his fastball, well up from 2164 in his final year in Pittsburgh. It had 2.9 inches more drop and 3.1 inches more break than the average pitcher (his curveball had 5.7 inches more drop and 3.6 inches more break than average).
Scherzer had a ridiculous 50.6 percent whiff rate on his slider in 2019 to go along with a 30.8 percent put away rate. The interesting thing is that the pitch was league-average in terms of drop and it also had 2.6 fewer inches of break than average.
How about some other stats?
.184 (top 7%)
.317 (top 4%)
.246 (top 2%)
.205 (top 10%)
.337 (top 10%)
.252 (top 4%)
I’ll leave you with their pitches by count. Both were very good at getting ahead in the count, and overall their paths were fairly similar.
All in all, if you asked anyone who they think is the better pitcher right now, you should get a unanimous decision in favor of Cole. But this is still going to be one heck of a duel to usher back baseball.