Is Gerrit Cole Starting to Realize His Potential?

Gerrit Cole has increased the usage of his slider in the second half, and the strikeouts have gone up. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gerrit Cole has increased the usage of his slider in the second half, and the strikeouts have gone up. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

2006: 16.0%

2007: 21.1%

2008: 18.5%

2009: 27.4%

2010: 23.7%

2011: 25.8%

2012: 25.0%

2013: 22.0%

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.

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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  • Monkshot

    The guy is going to be a beast. Imagine when he starts locating his off speed stuff with consistency.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kenneth.moore2 Kenny Moore

      You would think that COLE would be blowing batters away with the stuff he has. He sits at 97,98 and 99 with ease even touching 101 in his game earlier against the Angels. It’s almost like batters know when he is throwing his breaking pitches because they hardly ever offer at them.

  • PirateTom

    Cole’s biggest hurdle(no pun intended) will be keeping his cool in pressure situations and when things aren’t going well. The skills have always been there, it’s just when he gets emotional(down on himself etc.) that he starts to struggle. Once he gets locked(again no pun intended =P) in mentally he will become what we all know he is capable of being. An example being the 7th inning of last nights game when he seemed to be pumped up and rocking some confidence when he struck out 2 batters in a 1-2-3 inning. That changeup he struck out Aramis Ramírez with was just mean. It was awesome to see and I am indeed hoping he is starting to get more comfortable on the mound so we start seeing a more complete and Gerrit Cole

    • deacs

      PirateTom I would’ve expected those puns from James Santelli. The pitch to Ramirez was unfair. I can’t remember if it was Davis or Gomez but I thought they were going to throw their bat on the slider. It’s great to think that we have a potential ace coming up again next year (Taillon) and hopefully one more in 2015 (Glasnow). As a Pirate fan living in Philly I went to a lot of games where Schilling was pitching and I felt like he got stronger as the game went on. Hated watching that against the Bucs but if Cole can get stronger as the game goes on what a weapon that’ll be. Especially since we’ve been stuck watching the Karstens and the J Macs implode around the 6th inning.

  • ginbear

    Cole is learning how to pitch this year. Being that his off-speed stuff isn’t fully developed, I honestly thought he would come up and just try to overpower guys. He hasn’t done that. He’s changed speeds effectively, gotten ahead in counts and controlled the strike zone fairly well – stuff you normally expect from someone more seasoned. If he can develop and gain confidence in an out pitch, he could be really, really good.

  • CalipariFan506

    Maybe I’m seeing things but I think his velocity is a little down recently but his fastball is running in on righties more.

  • maguro

    “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.”

    Actually, xFIP doesn’t measure homeruns, it regresses everyone to a 10% HR/Flyball ratio. FIP includes the actual homerun prevention numbers.

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

      Correct. Homers go into the calculation, just not the pitcher’s actual home run numbers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.sweetnich Joe Sweetnich

    I don’t think Cole will dominate until he commands the use of his change up. I’ve heard he has a good one but have not seen it much. Whenever he gains confidence in that pitch he will be a beast. If he never gets to that point, he will not become an ace.

  • Jake Oswalt

    His changeup was a weapon last night. Almost looked like a splitter with the late downward movement. He was throwing it inside to right handers which isn’t done too often. The main thing is to have the same arm speed and make it look like a fastball and let the movement take over and disrupt hitters’ timing

  • emjayinTN

    This is still a 22 year old with 38 starts, a 14-10 record, 2.84 ERA, and a grand total of 200 minor league innings prior to coming to the major leagues. And we expected a finished product why? I loved the comparison to Justin Verlander who many think walks on water, but he really does not have Clayton Kershaw-type numbers. Cole lacks the killer out pitch, but when a kid can throw upper 90’s and has a 3 to 1 K/W ratio in the minors, I can be very patient. Now, Taillon has awesome movement on pitches and can be unhittable when he is on. Cole will just keep hitters swinging. Last night the Brewers were going with the pitch rather than trying to overpower a power pitcher. Instead of going inside with a runner, he kept putting the ball out on the edge and low enough that they could just pop it into RF. These are things he will learn as he grows in game experience. But again, I like the fact that he kept the bats moving and making them try to win it rather than waiting for ball after ball and putting people on base. He stayed ahead of most of the batters, but, IMO, if he can develop command of a running fastball into the hands, he may be able to K a lot of guys with the pitch out on the edge. We have a lot of kids in the Rotation and the bullpen with awesome arms, but who are just a little short on command and ML experience. The future looks bright!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    Tim…I have not been a Cole fan since we picked him (and I got to watch him live 3 times, incl the game at Altoona where he got hit by two line drives), but you and BP are starting to make me come around.

    Foo

    • buster09

      Comment Anyone who watched that game the other night and saw what Cole was doing the last 2 or 3 innings and still doesn't believe that kid is going to be a true ACE needs help ! After the slidersand changeups,the 98 MPH fastball on the outside corner ( with armside run ) he put on Aramis Ramirez actually made me laugh. That kind of stuff isn't fair.