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Nico’s Cottonalysis: The Fix May Not Be What You Think

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Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics
Could Jharel be drop down gorgeous?
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Jharel Cotton wants to be more than an enigma. Armed with a signature changeup, a good velocity fastball (averaging 93MPH) that has high RPMs but not great movement, an inconsistent cutter and curve, the 5’11” Virgin Islands native burst onto the scene with 5 excellent starts in September, 2016 (2.15 ERA) only to struggle big time in 2017. And by “struggle” I mean he coughed up 28 HRs in just 129 big league IP while posting a 5.58 ERA.

The meme

The common refrain on AN is that in order to turn things back around, Cotton needs to employ the high fastball and abandon throwing the fastball lower in the zone, taking a page out of the books of other pitchers with high RPM fastballs such as Sean Doolittle.

First off, I want to caution against putting too much stock in the virtue of turning Cotton into a “high fastball” pitcher. That approach works for pitchers who rely almost exclusively on their fastball — the batters knows the fastball is probably coming but can’t hit it, or can’t lay off of it when it is above the zone.

Cotton’s key weapon is his changeup and that is a pitch that needs to be thrown down in the zone, which means it must start no higher than the middle of the plate. Cotton’s changeup has a ton of movement, but not so much that he can start it at the letters and finish it at the ankles.

If Cotton throws high fastballs and low changeups he becomes easy to pick up early in his release: if it’s up it’s going to be a fastball and if it’s down it’s going to be a changuep. You need the two pitches to look the same as long as possible in order for either to be effective. If Cotton tries to fool hitters by throwing his changeup high in the zone he will give up closer to 28 HRs each month, so that’s not a solution either.

In other words, Cotton needs to be able to throw his fastball and his changeup from the same arm slot, appearing out of his hand to be the same pitch. In order to do this he has to be able to throw fastballs in the lower half of the zone, where his changeup resides.

Unfortunately, Cotton’s low fastballs tend to get hit hard, just as Doolittle’s did. What to do, what to do? I have a suggested answer, one that has a chance to be brilliant and also has a chance to be disastrous.

The Context

Here’s what we know...

- Cotton uses an over-the-top high arm-slot delivery that has worked well for many pitchers. However, those pitchers, who include Aaron Harang, Chris Young, and Aaron Sele, all share that they belong to the “over 6’ tall club” (in Young’s case the more exclusive “6’10” please, please don’t sit in front of me at the movie theatre!” club), where their release point is higher and is more deceptive up in the zone.

- Cotton gets good deceptive backspin on his fastball but lacks the movement to miss the barrel of the bat when hitters do make contact.

- Cotton needs to be able to throw his fastball down in the zone in order to optimize his success with the fastball/changeup combination.

The Fix

Let’s take a look at the career of Brad Peacock, which up until 2017 was Cotton-like doses of “good stuff, bad results”. Peacock did not exhibit strong command, and when he was in the strike zone too often his pitches were punished. In 2014-15 combined, Peacock put up an ERA right around 5.00 with 35 HRs in 215 total IP.

Then Peacock tweaked his delivery to lower his arm slot upon release from more over-the-top to more 3/4. Courtesy of Fangraphs, here are looks at Peacock’s release point from 2014 (left) and 2017 (right).

Dropping the arm slot a bit gave his fastball increased movement and despite losing a small tick of velocity (about 0.5 MPH) Peacock’s career soared to the tune of a 13-2, 3.00 ERA season in 2017. In Peacock’s case, his overall control actually improved as well, from a career 4.47 BB/9IP down to 3.89 BB/9IP in 2017.

The key for Cotton could be similar: lower his arm slot upon release rather than delivering the pitch straight over the top, to generate better movement that would allow him to utilize the bottom half of the strike zone. From the same arm slot, the sinking/tailing fastball and diving changeup starting in the middle/lower part of the strike zone become potentially a devastating duo.

The “Not-So-Fast”

Of course there are caveats, or at least potential hurdles, to check off before calling such a plan a success. They include:

- Can Cotton still get his changeup to have the same “bugs bunny” action from a new release point?

- Can Cotton command his pitches as well or better with a changed arm slot and with different movement on his pitches?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, then the entire idea falls apart. But if the answer is yes, you could be looking at one of those small adjustments that goes a long way, similar to a Jose Bautista leg kick or a Matt Olson realignment of the hands.

On one hand, you tend to want to go with “what got me to the big leagues” — and on the other hand, baseball is a game of adjustments that leaves behind those who live in perpetual stasis. Perhaps my idea is too over the top. Or maybe it’s Cotton’s delivery that is.

Poll

What do you think of the suggestion that the adjustment Jharel Cotton needs to make is to "pull a Peacock"?

This poll is closed

  • 50%
    It’s brilliant
    (213 votes)
  • 7%
    It’s incredibly dumb
    (31 votes)
  • 14%
    I still say stick with fastballs up in the zone
    (59 votes)
  • 28%
    He should try becoming a lefty knuckle baller
    (118 votes)
421 votes total Vote Now