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

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, 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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