At the start of the year, the expectation from most Pirates fans was for Gerrit Cole to go to Triple-A as a formality, just long enough to get an extra year of control and avoid Super Two status. As it turned out, Cole had some work to do at the level before he could be considered for the majors.
In his first four starts, the right-hander dealt with command issues, leading to long innings. Cole wasn’t giving up a lot of runs, but also wasn’t putting batters away early in the count. The Pirates have a policy that any pitcher who throws over 30 pitches in a single inning gets removed after that inning. Cole reached that single inning limit in the fourth inning or earlier in three of his four starts. In one of them he reached it in the first, but was sent back out in the second, only to top 30 pitches in an inning again.
On April 27th, Cole made his fifth start of the year, and got past the single inning pitch limits. He threw seven innings, allowing one run on three hits. The problem was that he walked four in that game. That gave him 15 walks in 23.1 innings, with only 19 strikeouts.
In the three starts since, Cole has cut down on the walks. Over his last three starts he has given up six earned runs in 19 innings, with a 12:5 K/BB ratio. He’s made it 6+ innings in each of his last four starts, so the single inning problems look to be behind him. He’s walked two or fewer in each of his last three starts, so hopefully the control issues are subsiding. The final problem is a low strikeout rate.
Cole has a plus slider, which he can throw up to 92 MPH, and which should be a great strikeout pitch. Last year he struck out 136 batters in 132 innings, with a strikeout per inning average at each level. Pairing that with an upper 90s fastball and a plus changeup should give Cole plenty of strikeouts
All of his issues this year go back to command of his pitches. Early in the season the lack of command was leading to deep counts. It was also leading to a lot of walks. The command has improved, which eliminated those two issues. However, it hasn’t improved to the point where he’s dominating hitters and racking up the strikeouts. Early in the season his command wasn’t to the point where he could put away hitters, so it’s good that he’s improved there.
I’m not concerned with Cole for the long-term. He’s got great stuff, and I think two things are in play here. First, people tend to dismiss the Triple-A level with top prospects. Recently it has been seen as a formality where you spend half a season to get an extra year of control, with nothing to learn at the level. Triple-A is still an important development level. Second, with a guy like Cole, the idea is that he should never have any problems. That comes from people confusing “future potential” with where a player is at right now. Cole has the potential to be an ace. He’s not there right now, but that doesn’t mean his future potential has changed. It just means he’s got a legitimate reason to be in the minors.
Felix Pie’s Bat Heats Up
A little over a week ago I was talking about how Felix Pie should be replaced in Indianapolis by Andrew Lambo, who has been tearing up Double-A pitching. It’s probably not related, but since that point Pie has been crushing the ball. He hit his first homer of the season the following night, and has been on a tear ever since. Pie is hitting for a .417/.512/.806 line with three homers in 36 at-bats since that point.
Pie’s situation is like a lot of other outfielders in the Pirates’ system. He’s crushing right-handers, but can’t hit lefties. On the season he’s hitting for a .302/.375/.488 line in 86 at-bats against right-handers. He’s 2-for-24 against lefties, with a .269 OPS. On that same note, Lambo is doing the same thing in Altoona, , with a 1.003 OPS in 95 at-bats against right-handers, and a .586 OPS in 42 at-bats against lefties.
The Pirates have right-handers covered in the majors. Jose Tabata has been crushing them, and Travis Snider has held his own, both in small sample sizes. While the results from Pie are strong, they don’t represent something that could help fill the problem in Pittsburgh of finding an outfielder who can hit lefties.
Black and Welker Deserve the Attention
On Tuesday we learned that Vic Black and Duke Welker have been drawing attention from opposing teams, with more than ten teams looking at them last weekend. The attention is definitely warranted.
Welker is old for a prospect, having turned 27 in February. However, he’s got great stuff, with a 96-98 MPH fastball and a hard slider that’s a plus pitch. So far this season Welker has 17 innings without an earned run, giving up just four hits, and posting a 20:9 K/BB ratio. He’s always struggled with walks, but can be effective if he limits the walks to the level they’re at right now, and strikes out a batter an inning.
Black is another hard thrower, with a 96-98 MPH fastball and a mid-80s slider that is also a plus pitch. He has a 2.86 ERA in 22 innings on the season. However, only two of his seven runs have come in his first inning of work. Black has also dealt with control problems, and those have continues this year. He’s walked 11 in 22 innings so far. However, he has only given up 13 hits, and has an amazing 31 strikeouts in 22 innings.
Both guys could be options for the back of the bullpen in Pittsburgh in future years. They could also provide strong middle inning options if the Pirates opt to go with other late inning options. I’m not sure what it means that other teams are looking at those two, but you could imagine that other teams would be thinking the same thing about how both relievers could help their bullpens for the next six years.