Anyone who expected Gerrit Cole to come up and immediately be an ace was setting themselves up for disappointment. That can certainly happen, but stories like Jose Fernandez are the exception, and not the rule. In most cases, a guy comes up and needs to adjust to the majors before realizing his potential.
One of the big concerns with Cole is that he will never be an ace. Part of that is probably just left-over fear remaining from the “Glass is half empty” years where no Pirates prospect realized their upside. After watching every prospect bust, or every pitcher have a good season only to fail to repeat those numbers, Pirates fans have the right to be skeptical. But they also need to be realistic. Here are Cole’s strikeout ratios at every level in the minors:
High-A: 25.3 K%
Double-A: 23.8 K%
Triple-A: 17.5 K%
The first two are what you want to see, although we’re at a point now where if a guy doesn’t put up Tyler Glasnow strikeout numbers (36.3%), he’s not going to be an ace. Again, there’s the exception and then there’s the rule. Glasnow’s numbers have been amazing, but that doesn’t mean Cole isn’t dominant because he’s only striking out a quarter of the batters he faces.
The big question comes with the strikeouts in Triple-A, and the strikeouts so far in the majors. That’s going to be weighed heavier than Cole’s numbers in high-A and Double-A. But the low numbers don’t necessarily mean Cole will never strike anyone out. You have to look beyond the numbers to see the story.
Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus did that today, breaking down Cole’s strikeouts as the year has gone on, and looking at his pitch usage. Lindbergh points out that Cole was using his sinker much more often in June, while barely using his slider. I pointed this out after Cole’s first few starts, noting that he was throwing about 80% fastballs. Cole was having success with the approach, although he needed his off-speed stuff to get key strikeouts.
Lindbergh’s article shows that Cole has greatly increased the usage of his slider since his first few starts, while decreasing the usage of his sinker. In June he was throwing almost all fastballs. In July he was a three pitch guy, adding the slider in more often, but still using the sinker a bit. In August he has increased his four seam usage, and the slider is now the second most used pitch. Here are the results when it comes to strikeouts:
June: 10.9 K%
July: 21.3 K%
August: 19.8 K%
Since the All-Star break, Cole has posted a 21% strikeout rate. That’s not among the best in baseball. Most of the top pitchers are 25% or higher, so Cole has some work to do. But there are some good pitchers in the 21-22% range, such as Justin Verlander (22%). Cole has always been compared to Verlander, due to the fact that they both have great fastballs that add velocity as the game goes on. If you look at Verlander’s strikeouts, he didn’t move above the 21% range until his fourth season in the league. Here are his yearly strikeout rates.
Verlander was 23 years old in 2006. He was 26 years old in his dominant 2009 season. Cole is 22 years old right now. He’s got an 18% strikeout rate on the season, which has been fueled by a strong second half. And the reason for his strikeouts makes total sense. His best out pitch is his slider. It made no sense that he was barely using it when he first came up. As he’s increased the usage of that plus pitch, his strikeouts have gone up. You don’t have to guess why the increased usage of a strikeout pitch would make strikeouts go up.
Looking at his overall numbers, Cole has a 3.74 ERA, and a 3.38 xFIP on the season. In the second half he has a 3.62 ERA and a 3.07 xFIP. Here are the Pirates second half leaders in xFIP:
A.J. Burnett – 2.75
Gerrit Cole – 3.07
Francisco Liriano – 3.16
Charlie Morton – 3.34
Jeff Locke – 4.06
xFIP measures the things the pitcher controls, and removes the impact of defense. It measures strikeouts, walks, home runs, and hit batters. Basically everything that is a battle between the pitcher and the batter. Cole has increased the usage of his slider in the second half. He also has the second best xFIP in the Pirates’ rotation during the second half, measuring his impact alone.
The way it looks, Cole seems to be realizing his potential as a future ace. Although I’m not sure if it’s realizing his potential when the results come from finally using his best out pitch to get outs. That doesn’t mean he’s now an ace. It just means that he’s showing he has the stuff to be an ace. And if he’s showing that at 22 years old (he turns 23 on Sunday), then just think what he’ll be doing at 23, 24, and 25 with a few years under his belt.