PITTSBURGH — I haven’t exactly been reserved about my feelings on Gerrit Cole’s dynamic first few starts for the Astros.
Three starts into Gerrit Cole's Astros career, I think it can be safely said the Pirates F'd up with him.
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) April 14, 2018
Pardon the (self-edited) language there — hey, it was midnight — but there are many of you who probably agree with me. As of Thursday, Cole has now made five starts with Houston, boasting a 1.29 ERA, an 0.77 WHIP and a ridiculous 38 percent strikeout rate.
For reference, Randy Johnson’s career K rate was 28 percent, with a single-season high of 37 percent in 2001. Cole probably isn’t going to reach that for a full year, but considering he never got as high as 25 percent for a full year with the Pirates, his whiff-tastic start bears watching.
It also tells me that the Pirates missed out on getting the most out of this guy. While I didn’t mind dealing a 31-year-old Andrew McCutchen because I saw his tools degrading, Cole was another matter. At 27 and with two years of affordable club control left, boy, you’d better get it right if you trade him.
As it pertains to Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz and minor-leaguer Jason Martin, their Pirates stories remain to be written. But as the above tweet probably told you, I don’t think the Pirates got it right with Cole.
Much has been made of Cole’s increased usage of his breaking pitches — his slider and curveball — at the expense of his fastball this season. As Alan Saunders wrote last week from Philadelphia, it’s not entirely accurate that the Astros go that route as a one-size-fits-all approach, but Cole did use his slider the most in 2015, which was to date his best season as an MLB pitcher.
A recent Sporting News story lent further credence to the Cole-as-changed-man narrative, with his catcher Brian McCann said the following: “He’s got everything in his arsenal to pitch to the hitter’s weakness, and then the way he’s executing, he’s not missing.”
So, there’s pitch usage and there’s how accurately one throws said pitches. McCann’s quote addresses both topics, but Cole honed in on the latter in the following money lines …
“It’s OK to miss. … That’s been huge for me. You don’t have to ‘dot up’ as much, so it’s freed me up to just attack.”
This is just one man’s opinion, but the way the Cole matter is playing out seems to be quite the indictment against how the Pirates handle their pitchers. Yes, heavy fastball usage and an emphasis pinpoint control may be helping Trevor Williams get the most out of his abilities, but I’m not sure the following list is a positive thing for the Pirates’ entire staff:
All 5 #Pirates starters rank in the top 10 (among 52 qualified) N.L. pitchers who use their fastball the most
— Joe Block (@joe_block) April 22, 2018
Clint Hurdle declined to address Cole’s specific comments because he didn’t read the story himself.
“Regardless of what I think or you think, that’s Gerrit’s perception,” Hurdle said in response to the Tribune-Review’s Tim Benz on Wednesday. “I’m happy he’s having success. I think we’ve done a really good job over the years of meeting the needs of our pitchers. … I didn’t take it as he was saying anything derogatory.”
Coming from a team that has gotten additional value from previously de-valued starting pitchers, Hurdle wasn’t about to shrug off Cole’s explosive start as completely random.
“I think anybody appreciates the chance at a fresh start,” Hurdle said. “I think a fresh start can be healthy for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes people just go other places and they find what they’re looking for.
“I had an old baseball guy tell me that sometimes players wake up one day and they ‘get it.’ ”
Hey, that’s all entirely possible. It could be that there’s something about Astros blue and orange that lines up better with Cole’s persona than Pirates black and gold. Maybe he was closer to stardom than we thought last year and his astronomical homer rate obscured that fact.
I don’t buy it, though.
We’re talking about a pitcher who started this season with three consecutive double-digit strikeout games after never even stringing together two in a row in his five-year Pirates career. We’re talking about a pitcher who has gone at least seven innings in each of his first five starts, something he never pulled off previously, not even during his Cy Young challenge in 2015.
Combine those early performance returns with copious context clues and I’m comfortable maintaining the view that the Pirates heavily contributed to Cole’s arrested development in Pittsburgh.
For a team that needs to squeeze every bit of value from its roster to compete for postseason berths, it’s borderline unforgivable to squander the potential of a homegrown player like Cole.
It might work out that four assets are better than one for the long-term competitive health of this franchise. I’m not disputing that at all, but the Pirates had a real window with Cole under their control.
If he continues to pitch for Houston like the first-overall draft pick he once was, that should sting a heck of a lot more than seeing McCutchen in Giants garb at PNC Park next month.
Farewell to Cutch, but Cole is the real loss. Depending on how the next two seasons play out, not taking advantage of Cole’s talents could be the biggest black mark on the Pirates’ current leadership group.