Gerrit Cole’s August Struggles Continue in Loss to Arizona

PITTSBURGH — Arizona jumped on Gerrit Cole early and Jeremy Hellickson kept the Pirates’ bats in check, as the Diamondbacks defeated the Pirates 4-1 in the first of their three-game set.

Gerrit Cole was charged with his seventh loss of the season — his third loss in his last four starts — while the Pirates’ offense went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and were unable to capitalize on their opportunities late in the game.

Cole attempted to establish his fastball early but initially struggled to command the pitch, and the Diamondbacks made him pay. They collected five hits in the first two innings, three of the extra-base variety, and plated three early runs to take control of the game.

However, Cole settled down after the second inning, and pitched into the seventh inning for the first time in his four August starts. He limited the Diamondbacks to three hits (one home run) over the next 3.2 innings, and kept the Pirates within striking distance. As he struggled to command his fastball, Cole turned to his curve ball and changeup more often, which allowed him to get into a better rhythm and he eventually located his fastball more efficiently.

Cole’s night ended after 6.2 innings in which he gave up nine total hits and four earned runs. He walked one batter and struck out five.

Unfortunately for Cole and the Pirates, the offense was unable to pick up the starting pitching on this night, as they have done in so many recent games. Diamondbacks’ starter Jeremy Hellickson worked at a snail’s pace, but did so effectively, keeping the Pirates’ offense off-balance and induced a lot of soft contact.

The Pirates’ offense was able to start rallies off in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, but came up empty each time, including a disappointing end to the seventh inning when the Pirates loaded the bases with just one out, but failed to score.

The Pirates will try to even the series tomorrow night when Francisco Liriano takes the mound against Chase Anderson in another matchup that looks to favor the Pirates. But as we saw tonight, matchup advantages don’t always equate to victories.

Cole’s August Struggles

Some might look at the box scores for Cole’s last four starts and conclude that he has struggled, especially with the lofty standards he set in the first half of the season. In August, he has a 4.70 ERA in 23 innings pitched, and tonight was only the first time in his last four starts that he was able to work into the seventh inning. His .391 BABIP and 2.07 FIP suggest that Cole is running into some tough luck, but that does not tell the whole story as Cole is inducing soft contact at an alarmingly low rate of 8.7%, his lowest of any month this season. He’s also inducing groundballs at a year-low rate of 34.8%, and his line-drive rate is up to 30.4%.

Delving deeper into those numbers, a lot of Cole’s problems seem to be stemming from his inability to be consistent with his sinker and slider. According to Brooks Baseball, opposing hitters have a slugging percentage of .444 against his sinker and .583 against his slider, while batting .333 against both of the offerings in the month of August. To put that into perspective, opposing hitters were batting a miniscule .157 against his slider and .267 against his sinker through the end of July.

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that the Pirates’ defense hasn’t helped Cole much, either. Beginning with Andrew McCutchen’s misplays in centerfield against the Reds on August 1st, to Aramis Ramirez’s failed throw to first against the Dodgers on August 7th, to Neil Walker’s throwing error against the Cardinals on August 12th, Cole’s month could have been very different with better defensive execution by the Pirates.

Encouragingly, it does not seem that Cole’s issues are related to fatigue, as he has maintained his usual velocity throughout this month. Cole is on pace to pitch a career-high 216 innings, although this is not substantially higher than the 196 innings that Cole threw in the 2013 season. It is likely that his recent struggles are just a blip on the radar of what has been a phenomenal season for Cole, but regaining his prior form with his slider and sinker will be key for Cole going forward.

**The Pirates’ bullpen posted 2.1 scoreless innings tonight, and have allowed a ridiculous one earned run over their last 18.1 innings pitched, dating back to Friday night.

It’s becoming even clearer that this is the strength of the Pirates, and could be a serious weapon come October.

  • Brooks baseball also shows some change in his slider movement. I don’t know enough to say whether this is significant or not, but it is a change:

  • As great as he is Cole is not a number one starter. He walks the pitcher seemly every game. He walks batters and then the roof falls in on him. He needs much better command of his pitches and until he gets that he will struggle. Number 2 starter isn’t bad but you need someone at the top of the rotation that can stop a losing streak not start one. Until the Pirates find such a pitcher they will struggle against the tough central division foes.

    • Excellent analysis, except for the fact that the only NL Central team Cole struggles against consistently is Cincy and that his career #s show he actually performs better vs teams >.500 than those below.

  • Baseball’s a funny game. On Sunday, the Pirates win on the road against the first place Mets while starting Jeff Locke against Matt Harvey. The next day, they return home and their ace loses to Jeremy Hellickson and the D’Backs.

  • Kershaw had an ERA of 3.97 in May. Wacha and Bumgarner’s ERA’s in July were 4.06 and 4.85. Scherzer has an ERA of 7.80 in August. Even the great pitchers have bad months, it’s nothing to have a panic attack about.

  • I think Cole will be just fine. He’s still growing and developing and getting better. I also think that, when we look ahead to a potential playoff matchup with the Cubs, Liriano is our best starter in a one-game playoff. The Cubs are a club who is very, very aggressive with the bats and swing and miss a ton…that begs for Liriano. Further, the big bats in their lineup are Rizzo and Schwarber who are both lefties. Lefties against Liriano hit like poo….583 OPS (although righties do not hit much better). Frankly, in a one-game playoff give me the guy with the BEST matchup…give me the dominant lefty with swing-and-miss stuff who does not get hit often or hard. That saves Cole for game 1 of the Cardinals series.

    • I actually think that should be an easy call to make if Hurdle just goes by matchups. But I have a feeling he won’t do that. The Cubs are horrendous vs Liriano. Like sub-.500 OPS horrendous.

      Conversely, you hope Maddon has a brain fart and starts Lester instead of Arrieta.

      • Liriano, for sure, seems to be the easy call against the Cubs…they really struggle against him and he’s the better match-up.

        • Liriano effectively negates Rizzo, who has 20+ PAs and has done bupkis. Most of the other major offensive threats are rookies and don’t see sliders like Frankie’s on a regular basis. Castro used to hurt him, and to a lesser extent Castillo. They’re gone now.

          • I think you can also eliminate Schwarzenegger another lefty by throwing Liriano. I know the Pirates probably won’t do it, but I can HOPE that they do. If it’s Pirates-Cubs for the WC game…give me Liriano through 6 innings and HOPE that we can get to Arrieta.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 18, 2015 10:43 am

    The offense is a bit of concern as well…not very consistent and we leave a ton of runners on base and in scoring position. Even though we swept the Mets, I think two of those games were 1-1 after 9 innings.

    • This actually surprised me, but PGH is a quality team with runners in scoring position overall. 3rd in the NL in wRC+, 4th in BA, 2nd in singles.

      STL is really average with RISP this year, shockingly.

      • On average, they strand the 5th most runners in the league per game.

        RISP stats can be misleading on both sides, Ive always felt. Id like to know the breakdown of how they hit with RISP when they are losing as opposed to winning. Feels like they go through stretches where they strand a lot and its cost them games. Especially early on in April.

        • Right, a team with a high percentage of runners on base has the ability to both hit well and strand many. With runners in scoring position, they hit .270 with a solid wRC+. For me, RISP is over played as many look into it a lot but its SSS each year.

          Every team has stretches where they strand too many and lose games.

          • A bona fide cleanup hitter helps too.

            I was 9-11 at the time. Didnt realize how nice Van Slyke, Bonilla, Bonds was, you know?

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        August 18, 2015 12:57 pm

        That is surprising – I guess it just “seems” like we leave a lot of runners on and in scoring position – especially after a game like last night. The BA and singles stats are not surprising to me, its run production I am concerned about on a consistent basis. Where do we stand in runs scored, since that is what really matters at the end of the day?

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 18, 2015 10:38 am

    Although the recent results have mostly been acceptable to good, I am getting concerned about our rotation coming down the stretch. Cole has been struggling, Liriano is kind of up and down, AJ is a big question mark, and we are putting a lot of faith in three guys who have been career mediocre starters.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 18, 2015 10:35 am

    Although Cole has had a very good year – especially prior to the break – I am still waiting for him to become that dominant #1 starter. When I think of dominant #1 starters, I am thinking of guys like Kershaw, Bumgardner, King Felix (in his prime), Sale, Scherzer, Verlander (in his prime), etc. Guys that consistently get double digit strikeouts, seem to flirt with no hitters 2-3 times a year, and consistently go deep into games (7 innings or more). Again, although Cole is by far our best starter and has been VERY good for the most part this year, he has not yet reached this level. Maybe he never will, but those are the expectations that come with him – right or wrong.

    • King Felix got shelled by the Yankees just a week ago (or less). This stuff happens. Kershaw was not good against us. It is what it is…these things happen, but, yes, I think Cole still has room to grow and further develop.

      • Scherzer pitched a no-no against the Bucs earlier this year and then gave up 3 homers against them the next time. Cole is just 24 in his 3rd season. I’d say most pitchers take 4-5 years to really hit acehood. Go and look at their annual stat lines. It even took Kershaw a few years to become what he is now. Scherzer didn’t really become an ace until his late 20’s. Bumgarner has a career ERA of 3.05. Cole’s is 3.13. King Felix is 3.11. Felix didn’t have an acelike season until his 5th year. Cole has better numbers than Kershaw did in his 3rd season. Greinke has a career ERA of 3.39. He didn’t finish a season with an ERA under 3 until his 6th year in the league. I think we’re seeing a special talent that’s just going through some growing pains.

    • For evidence of “baseball happens” in this situation, look at Kershaw’s first 9 starts. Periods of oddly non elite pitching happen for elite arms.

      Expectations are largely the fault of the fan, because you decide what “ace” means. 10 fans can all disagree on what it means, and thus disagree on if he is there or not. Fans expectations always drive how they view a player, but really that doesnt mean its always accurate.

  • Although I know Cole’s last few outings havent been pretty, the offense has this tendency at times to leave gobs of baserunners stranded. Wish they would pick him up at times.

    Arizona can hit too. But it still felt like a listless game after a good weekend in NY.

  • Cole sucks. Another wasted 1st round draft pick. Bring back Littlefield!

    If Pirates cash in on opportunities in 6th, 7th and 8th, we’re probably not talking about this.

    • Well, this seems right…I would, certainly, rather not see Cole get hit as hard as he did and see him give up 4 runs…but you also arent going to win many games getting only 1 run.

    • Great points bucs.Those missed opportunities, or if Marte catches Peralta’s foul pop behind 3d base in the 1st inning, the conversation would be a LOT different. Particularly after the huge strikeout of Goldschmidt. Also, playing the infield in the whole way with Hellickson at bat early didn’t help Cole either. Many times errors do not show up in the box score.

  • To me, it seems as if he’s going to the fastball too often when he’s down in the count. He can’t just lay 96 mph fastball down the middle when he’s down 2-0. Got to be able to locate the off speed stuff when down in the count or I fear this trend will continue.

    • I agree. Sometimes it seems as if they rushed Cole and didn’t force him to go through their normal progression for pitchers. As a result, he is still working through things like perfecting and commanding his off-speed pitches in the majors. Not saying it was wrong in the middle of our first playoff run in 20 years especially since he has clearly been a solid #2 over the past three years. But it adds some interesting perspective to the “should we rush Glasnow or not” theory. You want to win now but with a limited budget, you want to pay for the best versions of these guys.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        August 18, 2015 10:42 am

        Was Kershaw, Sale, Bumgarner, etc, “rushed” to the majors too soon? I think they were all younger than Cole when they moved to the majors. I think they were all 20-22. IMHO, Cole was not rushed to the majors. If you wait for any pitcher to be a complete and finished product, they will never get to the majors – pitching is an art form and pitchers continue to learn, grow, and perfect themselves even at the major league level.

        • You bring up a good point, but I am not familiar enough with those guys to determine where they were in their development. Cole was brought up before he had a decent change up. If you recall, he relied very heavily on his fast ball at the beginning. Was that the case with the other guys? Maybe the Pirates are overly focused on fastball location and these guys are below average with the off speed/breaking pitches by the time they hit the bigs. Remember, for all the praise we heap on the the Pirates, they have yet to actually develop a front line pitcher. Cole (who is a front line starter) is the closest but he progressed so quickly (200 minor league innings) that I would hardly consider him ‘developed’ by the Pirates…

  • I’m now officially concerned about Cole. Didn’t see the entire game. Missed the first two innings, but it seemed to me that his velocity was down. Quite a few fastballs in the 93-94 range, which is low for him. It even seemed as though he shook his arm after one of the pitches- I believe it was in the fourth inning. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that Cole may be dealing with some type of arm irritation. The good news is that he DID make it into the seventh inning. Hoping for a strong bounce-back game from him his next time out.

    • Looking at his game charts, the variation of speed on his FB doesnt seem at all different. I looked at yesterdays game and then a random game from June and he’s throwing equally as hard. Roughly half sitting 95 or above, half sitting just below that and a few 92-93 per game.

  • I know this is ‘counting our chickens before they’ve hatched’ but don’t we need to skip a start or two for Cole? There are limits that the Pirates like to enforce related to innings/pitch increases. While he seems set for the regular season, he would be in danger of exceeding those in any extended playoff run

  • Maybe it’s time to match Cole back up again with Stewart.

    • Matthew Tutino
      August 18, 2015 6:23 am

      Catcher doesn’t affect locating pitches. He’s missing all over, but especially down the heart of the plate for all these hard hit balls. Was his problem when he first came up too. Sad to see him revert back.

      • Except that comfort level with Stewart could help…a lot! I understand them wanting to get him used to Cervelli because they dont want to lose Cervelli’s bat in the playoffs, especially in a one-and-done wild card game. But I really do not think it is that big of an issue. I am not, honestly, even sure that Cole is who I would want to send out against the Cubs in a one-game playoff. IF I am Clint Hurdle and Liriano pitches like Liriano can down the stretch I think that no matter how well Cole performs I am starting Frankie over him in the one game. Liriano is a MUCH better swing-and-miss pitcher and against a team with the swing-and-miss tendancies of the Cubs and the LEFT handed power of the Cubs (Rizzo and Schwarber) I think Liriano is the easy choice.

        • Except that the comfort level with Stewart didnt help him in the multiple games his current issues started with Stewart behind the plate. These issues didnt start when Cervelli went with him, it started before that.

          Surely there is a period of getting used to one another, but its not true that his issues of the last 4-5 games began with Cervelli behind the dish.

        • Imo Frankie is not the “easy” choice. When he’s at the top of his game he is worthy of consideration but I’m a lot more concerned about Liriano than Cole right now. I’d also say a risk of implosion is always higher with Liriano because of potential control issues. He is a great pitcher but in a one game elimination I think Cole is best choice when you balance risk/reward.

          • Frankie is the easy choice…Rizzoli is the Cubs best hitter and can’t seem to find success against Liriano. Schwarber is another lefty. The Cubs hit somewhere right around .500 OPS against Frankie…and good luck to their rookies hitting is slider/change combo in the playoffs.

    • I was thinking the exact same thing last night during the game. Cole was very frustrated throughout the game last night, and I have not seen evidence of any great rapport with Cervelli. Stewart has some clutch hits this year, the drop off in hitting is not big enough to justify screwing up a battery that worked.