What Should We Expect From Gerrit Cole?

Gerrit Cole Pirates

Cole will face the San Francisco Giants in his MLB debut Tuesday.

Player comparisons can give fans a lot to dream on. One popular comparison for Pirates’ top pitching prospect Gerrit Cole has been Justin Verlander. It’s easy to understand because there are plenty of similarities.

Cole is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, was the No. 1 overall draft pick with an $8 million bonus and became a Baseball America top 10 prospect with a fastball in the high-90s. Verlander is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, was the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2004 and was Baseball America’s number 8 prospect in 2004, also with a fastball in the high-90s. Both the pedigree and the physical qualities lent naturally to such a comparison. Verlander has had a very successful Major League career, with the 4th-most wins above replacement among pitchers since his debut in 2005.

Another similar pitcher to Cole is John Patterson, who was selected No. 5 overall by the Montreal Expos in 1996. He became a free agent after the Expos forgot to offer him a contract in the first 15 days after the Draft (yes, really) and signed with the Diamondbacks for $6 million. Baseball Prospectus said the 6-foot-6 righty had “overpowering stuff” and a “legendary” curveball, and he became a Baseball America top-10 prospect. Elbow and forearm injuries prevented his reaching top starter potential, and he only had one season (a stellar 2005 campaign) better than one win above replacement level.

Gerrit Cole could become Justin Verlander. Gerrit Cole could become John Patterson. C’est la pitching prospects. So let’s figure out the real possibility for Cole by examining how the careers have turned out for other pitchers ranked in the Top 20 prospects by Baseball America.

Here’s what I did: I compiled the names of every pitcher who appeared among Baseball America‘s Top 20 prospects dating back to 2000. Cole was rated No. 12 by BA one year ago and No. 7 entering this season. To get better comparisons to Cole, who will debut in the Majors unless he gets eaten by a ravenous bird before Tuesday, I eliminated a few pitchers that never made it out of the Minors. That includes former Pirates’ farmhand Bobby Bradley, the only other Pittsburgh pitching prospect besides Cole and Jameson Taillon in the Top 20 since the turn of the millennium.

Gerrit Cole Pirates

Cole pitched 19 straight scoreless innings to finish up in Triple-A. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

That gives us 56 pitchers to look at.

I then entered the FanGraphs WAR for all of those pitchers and what age-season they compiled it. FanGraphs uses FIP for pitcher WAR, which I prefer over Baseball-Reference’s ERA-based pitcher WAR. We are working with enough pitchers that it should not affect the results too much.

Okay. My goal is to figure out how big a contribution Cole will make over the years the Pirates control his rights. He will not be a free agent until after 2019, his age-28 season.

Averaging the age-seasons of all 55 pitchers in our data set, excluding the seasons of pitchers like Stephen Strasburg that have not happened yet, here is the projection for Cole:

  • 2013 season: 1.5 WAR
  • 2014 season: 2.0 WAR
  • 2015 season: 2.0 WAR
  • 2016 season: 2.3 WAR
  • 2017 season: 2.1 WAR
  • 2018 season: 2.2 WAR
  • 2019 season: 1.8 WAR

So an average expectation for Cole would be 13.8 wins above replacement level over his Pirates years. The averages go down for the age-28 season because several top prospects who made the Majors at a young age flamed out by the time they turned 28. I entered their WAR as 0 for seasons after their MLB career ended.

Not all elite pitching prospects are created equal, though. Some of the top-level guys came from overseas (Chin-hui Tsao, Daisuke Matsuzaka), a Caribbean nation (Neftali Feliz, Francisco Liriano) or were a late-round pick (Roy Oswalt). So let’s narrow our list down to the 20 pitchers who were selected, like Cole, in the first 15 picks of the MLB Draft and update the projection.

  • 2013 season: 1.6 WAR
  • 2014 season: 2.7 WAR
  • 2015 season: 2.6 WAR
  • 2016 season: 2.8 WAR
  • 2017 season: 2.6 WAR
  • 2018 season: 2.6 WAR
  • 2019 season: 2.0 WAR

By matching Cole to the 20 starters with the most similar pedigree (Top-15 draft pick, Top-20 overall prospect), we project him to be worth 16.9 wins above replacement level in his time with the Bucs, an average of 2.4 wins per season.

One important note: these projections are merely averaging the 20 pitchers who were both a Top-15 draft pick and BA Top-20 prospect since 2000. The possibilities for Cole run across a wide spectrum from bust to Cy Young Award winner. Here is how those 20 pitchers performed in their age-22 to age-28 seasons, sorted by WAR per year.

  1. Clayton Kershaw (5.5 WAR)
  2. Justin Verlander (4.5)
  3. Tim Lincecum (4.4)
  4. Zack Greinke (4.2)
  5. Josh Beckett (3.7)
  6. Ben Sheets (3.6)
  7. Madison Bumgarner (3.1)
  8. David Price (2.9)
  9. Mark Mulder (2.7)
  10. Stephen Strasburg (2.6)
  11. Gavin Floyd (1.9)
  12. Mark Prior (1.8)
  13. Scott Kazmir (1.7)
  14. Homer Bailey (1.7)
  15. Jeff Niemann (1.3)
  16. John Patterson (1.2)
  17. Mike Pelfrey (1.2)
  18. Brian Matusz (0.9)
  19. Andrew Miller (0.5)
  20. Adam Loewen (0.2)

These are all pitchers who have been celebrated as highly as Cole has been through amateur baseball and the minor leagues. The ceiling is the Cy Young level of Kershaw, Verlander and Lincecum, but disappointments like Matusz, Miller and Loewen are all possibilities.

If the average of these highly-touted pitchers is 2.4 wins per season, that is a pitcher who would be worth about $12 million per year on the free agent market, someone who would be solid No. 2 pitcher for some teams or No. 3 guy for contenders.

Justin Verlander or John Patterson. These are both possible career paths for Gerrit Cole. But if the betting line is on a very good middle-of-the rotation pitcher for the next seven seasons, Cole would still be very valuable for the Pirates.

Author: James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as NBCOlympics.com, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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