First Pitch: The Minors Exist For a Reason

Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole

There’s one thing you notice when you cover prospects closely: there’s no middle ground with expectations and reactions. At times it seems like there are pretty much only two reactions to a prospect. If there is a good report, or a player is performing well, there are calls for a promotion. If the player has a flaw, or is going through some struggles, the reaction is doom and gloom. I don’t pay attention closely enough to know that it’s always the same people with these reactions. I do know that I’ve had several instances where I’ve been asked why a player (who isn’t ready for a promotion) isn’t getting promoted. When I point out the flaws that player has, the reaction takes a 180 turn, and suddenly the player isn’t going to be a star hitter or the ace pitcher he was projected to be.

In general, I find that people sometimes forget that the minors exist for a reason.

We talk so much about the upside of players that it becomes easy to forget that we’re talking about what players could become, and not what they are now. Take Gerrit Cole, for example. Cole has the upside of a number one starter. That doesn’t mean Cole is a number one starter right now. He probably won’t be a number one starter when he’s called up to the majors later this year. But at some point, when he’s fully developed, he could become a number one starter.

That development is crucial for him to reach his ceiling. That’s why it’s alarming that so many people would suggest that he skip over Triple-A and go right to the majors. Ask yourself, why?

Is it because Cole had good numbers last year in high-A and Double-A? Is it because he had one decent start in Triple-A, with one horrible start left off the stat lines because it came in the playoffs? Is it because he had a 3.60 ERA in a mere 10 innings in major league camp this Spring? Or is it because the focus is on his upside of a number one starter, and when you combine that with the impatience that comes from 20 years of losing, and the uncertainty that comes from this pitching staff, you start to think “let’s see if he might be ready now”.

Here are some facts about Cole. In his second start with Indianapolis he gave up eight earned runs in two innings. In his two starts this season he has combined for a 6.00 ERA in six innings. He left the first start after four innings due to reaching his single inning pitch limit in the fourth inning. He left tonight’s start after two innings and 63 pitches. So ask yourself another question. If Cole needs 30+ pitches to get through an inning against a Triple-A lineup at this point, then how is he going to be anything close to his upside in the majors right now?

The problem with prospects is that their perceived values are so volatile. The sky is the limit for a prospect until he starts to show a flaw. When that flaw comes up, the allure starts to wear off.

In Cole’s case, he’s not ready for the majors, and he has things to work on. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him for the long-term. He’s still a pretty strong bet to be a future ace. But he also has a trend where he struggles initially at a new level, only to figure things out and put it all together after a little more time at the level. Right now it looks like he’s in that adjustment period for Triple-A. He might have even been promoted to Triple-A a bit too early. He was struggling with his control in his final starts with Altoona last year before the promotion, and now he’s had back to back starts where he’s putting up long innings, rather than dominating opposing hitters and putting them away early in the count.

Before calling Cole up, the Pirates should wait until he gets through this adjustment period, starts fixing some of these issues, and starts putting up a few strong performances at the level. He will eventually live up to his potential. He’s just not there yet, which is totally fine. That’s the purpose of the minor leagues — to give prospects a place to improve their game, and help them reach their upsides. The Pirates would be foolish to rush Cole through this process.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5. Get them both to use throughout the 2013 season.

**Prospect Watch: Gerrit Cole Bounced Early in Second Straight Start Due to Pitch Count.

**Minor League Schedule: 4/11/13.

**Charlie Morton and Francisco Liriano Hoping to Return in May.

**Wandy Rodriguez Has Hamstring Strain, Not Likely to Make Next Start.

**Jonathan Sanchez Shelled As Pirates Lose Sweep Attempt 10-2.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Pghfan987

    Tim, isn’t it possible that Cole just got unlucky in his few starts this season? 6 innings with 8 Ks, 2 walks, and 1 HR hardly seems like bad pitching. You cited Cole’s 6.00 ERA this season as evidence for him not being ready, but you ignored his sterling peripherals. This seems like a classic case of the brain accepting information that supports one’s existing opinion, and ignores data that would make us change our mind.

    I’ll bet that Cole ERA drops significantly over the next few months. His peripherals won’t get any better.

    • Pghfan987

      Your critique:

      “now he’s had back to back starts where he’s putting up long innings, rather than dominating opposing hitters and putting them away early in the count.”

      sounds like your arguing that Cole isn’t ready because he isn’t striking out batters fast enough. That sounds like a pretty big reach.

      According to a poster on BD:

      “He threw 42 of 63 pitches (67%) for strikes, a very good rate, and batters only made contact on 5 of those strikes (12%), an excellent rate, where MLB avg is 30%.”

      That’s dominant.

      • whiteAngus

        I dont think Tim is saying that at all.
        5Ks in 2 innings is great, but 60 plus pitches in 2 innings obviously is not.
        Since he had a great % of strikes with 67, it sounds to me like he had a great deal amount of 2 strike foul balls last night. Now his “peripherals” may say dominance, the pitch count, especially this early, is more important to his development. If hes having trouble putting away AAA hitters, it will be worse in MLB.
        then again, keeping the ball down in the zone will help with putting guys away instead of high pitch counts to every batter. thats been Cole’s only real issue since day one.

        • whiteAngus

          theres nothing wrong with letting your fielders get some out. fastballs are fascist.

      • Ian Rothermund

        Focussing on peripheral stats is for players who are producing via their primary stats. For instance, if he was going 6 or 7 innings each start and only giving up a couple runs, you might be fooled into a false sense of comfort; if in the meantime he’s walking 7 per 9. You can see trends and where players might be headed. Right now I see him the same as I would a hitter starting off the season with a low average, but solid k/BB ratio and a low BABIP. You can see where Cole isn’t being dominated by the competition, as much as it is some short coming of his that he needs to improve upon.

        • Pghfan987

          Maybe if we had a significant sample of his ERA in Indy. But we are talking about a handful of starts. I’d much rather Cole put up lights-out peripherals than a low ERA but no be missing bats.

      • Spike Crain

        I disagree. I’ve seen plenty of pitchers who can throw strike after strike, without achieving dominance. (A Home Run, after all, counts in that Strike Column, no less than a foul ball, or strike three.) I realize that you’re not narrowing it down to that fine a point, but I’m just stressing how incomplete a statistical view can be.

        • Spike Crain

          My disagreement was meant for PGHFAN987, BTW – I just screwed up the placement. D’OH!

        • Pghfan987

          It’s not his strike rate that is dominant. It’s his strike rate COMBINED with him missing a ton of bats. Hell, I could throw strikes, even in the Majors. But I’d be throwing batting practice.

    • Pghfan987

      Oops, just 7 Ks for Cole in 6 innings.

    • Tim Williams

      He’s thrown six innings. In three of those innings he has thrown 30+ pitches. Yeah, the ratios are great, but at what cost? Striking out five in two innings is a good ratio, but only going two innings in a start is not a good thing.

      That was what I was focused on, the high pitch counts.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: It is still very early for Gerrit Cole. One reason that minor leagues exist is also to house a lot of guys trying to hang on and catch lightning in a bottle and get back to “the show”. One glance at the AAA Indy lineup from yesterday is proof positive of that fact. There were only two “kids” in the order – Jordy Mercer and Ivan DeJesus, Jr. Sands and Presley were out of the order. Has somebody put the evil eye on Bradenton?

  • Lee Young

    Greg Maddux…

    5.52 and 5.61 his first two years!!

    Guys don’t come up and star in their first years (there ARE exceptions, but…)


    • emjayinTN

      Lee: If I recall correctly, he was a Walk machine in those days also with a lot less than a 2/1 K/W Ratio. He was all muscle and no brains, but when it clicked he became nearly unhittable. The Cub’s gave up on him early and he found himself with Atlanta and became a HOF pitcher.

  • Ecbucs

    I had to look it up but Cubs just allowed him to leave in free agency.

    He had 5 good years in a row with the team, and won 20 his last year.

    That was when Cubs were not acting like a big market team and the Braves were.

  • jg941

    Cole was the #1 overall pick, drafted only 22 months ago. The Pirates CAN’T screw this one up, so let him get his appropriate amount of time in at all levels and get him here when he’s “ready” (which IMO is still soemtime this year).

    Wandy’s injury or JSanchez’ implosion doesn’t mean Cole is ready.

  • emjayinTN

    jg: Well stated. If he does well, possibly late June or at the AS Break and if he is inconsistent, waiting until Sep callups is not out of the picture. Either way, he is a unique talent and somebody the Pirates have not had for many, many years. The Pirates have a great opp with he and Taillon, and building toward 2014 is the thing we should be doing.

  • Tim Williams

    J.J. Cooper at Baseball America talked more about Cole’s start last night and his issues with high pitch counts:

  • Spike Crain

    I think JG… and EM… have something here. I applaud Pirates Management for not rushing things. Gerrit Cole is too vauable to risk. I realize that Stephen Strassberg (sp?) was not in the same category (not a College Term Draftee) but, I saw the result of pushing him up early: they got a few sensational games with big draws, then lost him for a year. I thought it was shameless.

    • Pghfan987

      Apples and oranges. Strasburg wasn’t “rushed”. His injury had to do with his mechanics, not his development. Many experts saw his inverse W as an inevitable injury cause. Strasburg was dominant from his first start in the Majors.

      Two of Cole’s biggest strengths as a prospect are his mechanics and his durability. He was known at UCLA to be able to throw harder as the game went into the later innings … just like Justin Verlander.

      If anything, the Nats screwed up last season by not starting Strasburg’s inning count until May. He should have been available for the playoffs.

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