First Pitch: When Washington Shut Down Strasburg and How it Relates to Cole

Last night I wrote about the state of the rotation leading into the playoffs. My playoff rotation would include Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, and Wandy Rodriguez. When I mentioned Gerrit Cole, I noted that he’s been great lately, but that my main issue with him is innings. I also said that the Pirates might want to use Cole as a reliever if they have four other starters who are capable. I thought that was pretty clear in the write up from yesterday.

Then there’s Gerrit Cole, who has been quietly improving in the second half. I wrote about this before his last start, and then he went out and threw seven shutout innings, with nine strikeouts. The issue with Cole is innings. If the Pirates have four starters who are capable, then they might want to use Cole as a reliever.

I believe that the Pirates do have four capable starters, to the point where Cole (expected to be 50 innings over his 2012 totals) wouldn’t provide a big upgrade, if any. I also mentioned that experience was a factor here. Since I don’t see Cole as a significant upgrade over Wandy Rodriguez, I’d go with Rodriguez due to the post-season experience. I’d also go with Rodriguez due to the left-handed in PNC Park factor.

If you bring up innings as a reason for keeping Cole out of the rotation, you’re going to get a comparison to Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals in 2012. The only way these situations compare is if you look at two teams shutting down two talented young pitchers. I’d also point out that Strasburg last year was better than Cole has been this year, so the two don’t totally compare.

The problem with just looking at the surface is that you’re ignoring the key differences that separate the 2012 Nationals and the 2013 Pirates.

A key difference was that Washington didn’t necessarily have a rotation full of guys that were the same or better than Strasburg. They were led by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. After that, Strasburg was performing like the number three starter. Statistically Ross Detwiler was fourth, but I’d take Strasburg over Detwiler easily in a four man rotation. Edwin Jackson didn’t have the stats, but he was pretty much a lock for the playoffs due to how much the Nationals had invested in him.

The Nationals basically opted to shut down Strasburg and start Detwiler in the playoffs. It’s not like that move cost them, since Detwiler gave up one run in six innings and the Nationals won his only start in the NLDS. But that might be a case where the outcome doesn’t justify the process.

I don’t think the Pirates are in the same situation with Gerrit Cole.

Francisco Liriano is a lock for the playoff roster. So is A.J. Burnett, despite the big inning issues. He’s basically the Edwin Jackson of this team — you ignore the numbers and focus on how good of a pitcher he can be.

From there you have Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, and Gerrit Cole for two spots. Technically you have Jeff Locke and other pitchers, but I don’t trust any of them.

Gerrit Cole has been a good pitcher in the second half, but he doesn't provide a big upgrade over Charlie Morton or Wandy Rodriguez. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gerrit Cole has been a good pitcher in the second half, but he doesn’t provide a big upgrade over Charlie Morton or Wandy Rodriguez. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The big appeal with Cole right now is that he’s pitching well in the second half. But Charlie Morton is also pitching well in the second half. Cole has the better numbers, with a 2.95 xFIP, compared to a 3.49 xFIP from Morton. But Cole will also have 180+ innings by the time the playoffs roll around. I don’t trust him to be as fresh at that point, so I don’t know if he’d still have the better numbers.

Wandy Rodriguez could change this whole discussion. If he comes back and looks sharp, I’d start him over Cole with the fourth spot. If he doesn’t come back healthy and looking sharp, then Cole might be in as the fourth starter, unless Locke can finish the season just as strong as his start yesterday. I’m not totally sold that would happen, so it’s between Wandy and Cole. If Rodriguez is healthy, that’s an easy decision for me.

There’s also the innings totals, which no one wants to discuss. People hate any talk of innings limits. It leads to the usual arguments:

1. Pitchers are babied. If that’s your argument, here’s Keith Olberman to explain why the old pitchers who weren’t babied shouldn’t be the example.

2. Pitchers get hurt no matter what. That may be, but that doesn’t mean you should just be careless with pitchers. I’d also point to the fact that the Pirates have been very cautious with their young pitchers. They draw a ton of criticism for that. But they also don’t see a lot of major injuries. Usually they only see a major injury when I bring this up.

3. Flags fly forever. This is one of my favorite arguments because it assumes people actually care about that flag the next season. If the Pirates win the World Series, then struggle for the next few years, no one will say “it’s fine, they won the 2013 World Series”. When it comes to the “Triple-F” argument, it assumes that you need a certain move to win. The reality is that you might not win no matter what move you make. Or you might win regardless of what players you start.

The idea that Gerrit Cole provides some significant upgrade over Morton or Rodriguez is false. That might be true if we’re talking about Brandon Cumpton or Jeanmar Gomez. And remember, this isn’t “Gerrit Cole at his full potential”. This is “Gerrit Cole in 2013 with 180+ innings as a rookie who still struggles to get a key strikeout when needed”. Gerrit Cole is going to be an amazing pitcher, but it’s important to separate what he is now, and what he will become later. The impact he makes later, in all of those future years that fans will absolutely care about, will be much greater than the impact he provides now.

I don’t feel Cole is going to make a big difference over Morton or Rodriguez, all things considered. He might not even be an upgrade at all in the 2013 playoffs.

That’s the difference between Cole and Strasburg, and the Pirates and Nationals. In both cases you would have a team shutting down a young pitcher due to innings. Keep in mind that the Pirates haven’t said they were doing this with Cole. This is just what I would do, and I wouldn’t shut him down, but I’d move him to the bullpen. The key difference is that the Nationals saw a big downgrade going from Strasburg to Detwiler (and Strasburg was pretty much at his full potential). The Pirates aren’t going to see that big downgrade going from Cole (not at his full potential) to Morton and Rodriguez. And if there’s not a significant difference in the talent, then that’s when you consider other things like experience, and making sure you control the innings of your future ace.

Links and Notes

**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects podcast is out, featuring special guest Rocco DeMaro: P3 Episode 19: Catching Up With Rocco DeMaro

**Pirates Make History, But Lose 5-4 to Cubs

**Pirates Notebook: Command and Confidence

Tim Williams

Author: 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 AccuScore.com, 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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  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    So, if Jeff’s last start is a portend of him getting back to his All Star self, THEN do you trust him?

    Personally, I am starting to not trust AJ.

    Foo

    .

    • Andrew

      I say look at the full body of work. Locke walks too many batters for his strikeout rate, which mean base runners and balls in play, not a winning combination.

      Take a look at Tim’s list of Burnett recent starts from an earlier post, notice a trend? Great early, then gets hit around. Burnett’s opponent OPS jumps 100 points with each turn through the lineup, (while the trend is normal the magnitude is not.) Granted much of that increase in opponent OPS due to him being incredibility effective in the first two times through the lineup, with a 30% K rate.

      Your trust in Burnett could be restored if that proverbial leash was shortened and better/quicker use of the bullpen “firemen.”

  • skliesen

    Strasbourg vs Cole is an apples to oranges debate. And it has nothing to do with their teams. Strasbourg was shut down after coming off TJ surgery. Cole was injury-free last year.

    We very well may be seeing the flowering of Cole’s potential in this pennant race. To nip that in the bud due to some arbitrary innings pitched metric could be a fireable offense if I’m Bob Nutting.

    The very best athletes perform their best when the stakes are the highest. Cole looks like he may be that rare type of player. Let’s all find out together. Innings Pitched be damned!

    • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

      I could not agree more with any post I’ve seen on this Topic. Cole to my eye, has indeed, been a significant upgrade over Morton, Rodriguez, and Locke. He is at least equal in my eyes to A.J. who is a huge competitor and the playoffs are his playground.
      Cole is my three starter in the playoffs, hands down. Innings are no concern for this healthy young man. This is his time and the teams time – all hands on deck.

  • leadoff

    If they pitch Cole on 6 days rest he is more effective at this time of year, you can’t do that in the playoffs, but you can do that for one game if he misses his last start of the year, in that case I would use him over anyone they have. Pitching Wandy over Cole is like a one legged man in a potato sack race against a guy with two legs. Wandy should be in the Pen to get left handers out. The facts are they don’t have a lock down pitcher for the playoffs, but Cole is the only pitcher they have that has never been lit up. There is no Sandy Koufax on this team for sure. Any of the pitchers mentioned in this column “could” get lit up, so much of what happens in the playoffs rides on Hurdles shoulders IMO, if he uses the quick hook, he might make it, if he uses the April hook, the Pirates better be ready to out slug someone. He used the long hook last night with Grilli and we saw what happened. Would it not have been nice to bring a craftly left hand specialist in to pitch to Rizzo instead of leaving Grilli in there?

    • buster09

      ” Would it not have been nice to bring a craftly left hand specialist in to pitch to Rizzo instead of leaving Grilli in there? ” I thought the very same thing leadoff. And I don’t mean a crafty LOOGY like Zach Duke either. Unfortunately it won’t be Wandy either.

  • Ecbucs

    It may be that Cole isn’t one of top 4 starters by time playoffs start. But if he puts together another start or two like last one he would be.

    No one knows how Wandy is going to be when he returns.

    To me, Cole, AJ and Liriano have the ability to pitch six shut out innings to start a game more often than either Morton or Wandy do.

  • steelpro

    Tim, you are putting way to much faith in Wandy Rodriguez. The guy hasn’t pitched to major league hitters in more than 3 months. To expect him to be the same pitcher is a little unfair. You have to figure he’ll be rusty . Even if/when he does come back he will be hard pressed to be near the top of his game. By the way, Wandy has never posted a FIP as low as the 3.18 that Gerrit Cole has right now. And I don’t think Wandy’s playoff experience is very meaningful either. I think the appropriate cautions with Cole have been made. If he is still pitching well he should get the ball in the playoffs. We are talking 3 post season starts max.

  • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

    I’d rather see total # of pitches rather than innings. If pitch counts are high, THEN I worry. Anybody got those numbers handy?
    Also, any guesses as to which game it will be when the Bucs clinch a playoff birth? I’ll be out for the final home series vs Cincy…hope it’s then!

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      It’s hard to get this information, since pitches aren’t tracked for high-A starts, or for a lot of Double-A starts. So the 2012 numbers wouldn’t be available for comparison.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Right now, I would be very concerned about Charlie Morton. In his last 2 games he is 6.2 IP, 10 hits, 8 ER, 5K/4W and an ERA of 11.61. He was lights out for about 5 games and now this? The one thing about this staff is that they have been there for one another when one drops the others tend to pick him up. I was very hopeful he would return to what we saw in August and not what we saw in his previous start. My reason was that if he looked good right after Locke, I thought the Bucs would shut Cole down for the season as I mentioned in your thread you referred to in the beginning of the article today.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I don’t give much credit to “in the last two game” analysis. That’s why I’m not worried about Morton, and why I’m not saying Cole is suddenly an ace because of his last two starts.

  • https://profiles.google.com/117072260031604417798 PikeBishop65

    Let’s also remember that Strasburg was in his 3rd full season in the Majors, Cole his first.

    Also, I think it was so kind of the Nationals to shut him down when they had a chance for a pennant. I mean we don’t him to have too many miles on him when he goes to the Yankees in three years.

  • weltytowngang

    Cole has turned into the stopper for the Pirates; the Pirates have a chance to win in any game he has pitched. I think Hurdle is taking it one game at a time with Cole and will decide each game what to do with him.