The top prospect in the system, Gerrit Cole, is making his major league debut tonight against the San Francisco Giants. I’m not sure how many people need an introduction to Cole’s stuff. He’s been the top prospect in the system for the last two years, and I’ve written about his stuff countless times. Plus, you all can just turn to page 16 of your Prospect Guides to get a full page summary of what Cole is capable of. You do have a Prospect Guide, right?
I started this feature when Phil Irwin was promoted earlier in the year. Irwin struggled with his command, didn’t have the best results, and has only made one appearance since, and has been diagnosed with inflammation of his ulnar nerve. If things go wrong with Cole tonight, I’m guessing Pirates fans will join as one to burn this website to the ground, if that’s a thing that you can do to a web site. But it will all be worth it, because the one person who doesn’t know what kind of stuff Cole has will now know what to expect tonight.
Also be sure to check out James Santelli’s article from yesterday, as James looks at what Cole could become in the long-term. And check out my article from last night where I ask if Cole is the most important player for the Pirates going forward.
Cole throws a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, although his four-seam fastball is most notable. The pitch consistently sits in the mid-to-upper 90s, and can touch triple digits. Cole actually adds velocity as the game goes on, much like Justin Verlander. One issue with the pitch is that he tends to flatten it out and leave it up in the zone. The Pirates made a minor adjustment when he came into the system, getting him focused on throwing with more of a downward plane. He’s done a much better job of that ever since, although it’s still going to be a focus. Cole’s two-seam fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90s and is aimed at getting quick ground ball outs.
Cole’s best off-speed pitch is his slider. It’s a plus offering that has sharp break, falling off the table low and away from right-handers. The most impressive thing about the pitch is that Cole throws it in the upper 80s to lower 90s, and has hit 92 MPH with the pitch. That’s a slider being thrown as hard as most pitchers throw their fastballs. Cole has had some trouble commanding the pitch and using it for strikeouts. Travis Sawchik at the Trib reported that Cole isn’t throwing the pitch as much this year, focusing on his other off-speed pitches. However, when I’ve seen it, the slider hasn’t been putting people away like you’d expect.
Cole also throws a curveball in the mid-80s which acts like a slurve and can be confused with his slider.
There has been some debate over whether Cole’s changeup is a plus offering. He throws the pitch in the upper 80s, touching 90 MPH, and cutting away from left-handers late. I’m on the side that feels the pitch is a plus offering, just because of the late movement, and because it’s a 90 MPH changeup. That late movement is something that he has with all of his pitches, which can make them all hard to distinguish. The changeup gets confused with a slider. The curveball looks like a slower slider. The two-seam fastball can look like a breaking pitch. And of course the slider looks like a slider. This isn’t just to the average fan. The minor league pitchers who chart Cole’s pitches have to ask him all the time what pitch he just threw, as they can’t even distinguish the difference. Basically, everything he throws is nasty.
A good guide for Cole is to watch the velocity. If it’s upper 90s, it’s the four seam. Anything 92-94 is usually the two-seam. Anything in the upper 80s is the slider (finishes low in the zone on the left side) or the changeup (breaks away from lefties). The mid-80s is usually the curve.
A big issue for Cole this year has been command. In his first four starts he struggled to make it past the fourth inning due to a high single inning pitch count. The Pirates don’t let minor league starters go past 30 pitches in an inning, and if they reach that amount, they’re removed from the game. Cole had one start where he went past that amount in the first inning, was given another shot, then went past that mark in the second inning, giving him 60+ pitches in two innings of work.
Cole struggled with walks after that. He had walked 15 batters in 23.1 innings. Since his May 4th start, Cole has been much better. He’s made it to the sixth inning in all seven starts, and has combined for a 3.18 ERA in 45.1 innings, with a 28:13 K/BB ratio. He’s going deeper into games and the walks are down, but the concern is the lack of strikeouts.
In the article by Travis Sawchik linked above, he quotes Cole saying he’s not focused on strikeouts, but is focused on getting quick outs. Marc Hulet from FanGraphs also wrote that a scout told him the Pirates pitchers see low strikeout numbers because they’re taught to pitch to contact and keep their pitch counts down. Both of these are correct. The Pirates preach “three pitches or less”. They focus on getting that first pitch strike, attacking the hitter, and getting guys out using three pitches. If a pitcher’s stuff is good enough, he’s going to get strikeouts with this approach.
That’s the concern with Cole. His stuff should be good enough to get strikeouts, even when he’s trying to pitch to contact. In his last start in Triple-A I noticed two things. One is that I noticed he was getting a lot of quick outs. There were several innings where he only needed around 10 pitches the entire inning. That’s a good thing to see. However, the last two at-bats of the game displayed the issue. Cole got into a 3-2 count with the next to last batter he faced, and ended up walking him. He quickly went 0-2 on the next batter, then threw a few sliders which were fouled away. The batter finally singled, and Cole got out of the inning because Jerry Sands threw the runner on first out at third.
With the potential of Cole’s slider, he shouldn’t struggle to put batters away. When he gets in 0-2 counts, it should be a strikeout most of the time, or an easy out. He shouldn’t be going as deep into counts as he has been this year. That’s where the command comes in. Cole has the plus fastball, plus slider, and plus changeup. But he’s not using those pitches to dominate hitters. That’s not something he has to actively try to do either. He can attack hitters and try to pitch to contact, and his stuff will be good enough to get strikeouts and avoid going deep into counts.
That’s been a big concern throughout Cole’s career. He’s got amazing stuff, but his numbers have never matched the stuff. He had a career 3.38 ERA in college. He’s been better in the pros, with a 2.84 ERA, but his 6.2 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9 ratios this year don’t scream future ace. We know that he has the stuff to do it, and even without the strikeouts he can put up amazing numbers. With any other pitcher these numbers would be great. But there’s a higher bar for Cole to reach. As Jim Callis said on our podcast last week, Cole has the upside to be the best pitcher in the game. And speaking of that…
What is Cole’s Upside?
The best pitcher in the game. But if he falls short of that he has a really good chance of being just a “normal number one starter”.
Cole has three plus pitches, with an upper 90s four seam fastball that touches triple digits, a sharp breaking slider that can get as high as 92 MPH, and a changeup that tops out at 90 and has late break. He also throws a two-seam fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, and a slurvy curveball in the mid-80s, which are both above-average pitches. At his best he’s got the best stuff in baseball, but the command issues this year, and throughout his career, have limited that upside. Even without reaching his full potential, he’s probably the best starting pitching prospect the Pirates have seen in the last 20 years, and maybe well beyond that.