Williams: Revisiting Why the Pirates Traded Gerrit Cole

Right after the Pirates added Chris Archer and Keone Kela at the trade deadline, there were questions wondering why they traded Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen prior to the 2018 season. Those questions were more confusing based on the pre-season statements from Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington saying he expected the team to contend this year.

Yesterday I looked at the Andrew McCutchen side of this question, looking back at why they traded him, along with the outcome of the deal. The McCutchen side is easy to explain, because not a lot has changed between now and then. McCutchen was a guy on the decline with only one year remaining. The Pirates traded him to get a return and set out to find a better replacement. They got a good return in Kyle Crick and Bryan Reynolds (as I said yesterday, I’m not sure McCutchen could be traded for Crick at this point), and replaced McCutchen with Corey Dickerson, who has outperformed McCutchen this year by a 2.2 to 1.3 fWAR rate.

The Gerrit Cole side of this question is a bit more difficult to explain. Things have changed since that deal, and those changes provide hindsight that can really impact the view of the deal. The trade of Cole also highlights some key issues with the organizational philosophy that the Pirates had with their pitchers. As a result, it’s difficult to view this trade without the benefit of hindsight. I’m going to give it a shot though, in a sort of Tarantino style where I don’t start at the beginning.

Cole Would Definitely Help Right Now

The difference between the Cole and McCutchen situations is that Gerrit Cole would upgrade the team right now. McCutchen would be the fourth best outfielder right now, while Cole would be the best starter, with an fWAR that is currently double the total that Jameson Taillon is putting up, and on pace to be the best of his career, while topping his WAR from the last two years combined.

So it makes sense that people would wonder why the Pirates spent so much on Chris Archer when they just traded away a top pitcher six months ago. If getting a top starter who is under control beyond 2018 was so important, then why deal away Cole, who was under control through 2019?

The answer to that requires that we separate the Gerrit Cole we know now, versus the Cole that was traded six months ago.

What Has Changed?

Gerrit Cole has a 2.75 ERA and a 3.07 xFIP. Those numbers rival his 2015 season, when he had a 2.60 ERA and a 3.16 xFIP. He also has a 12.12 K/9, which destroys his previous best total, which was a 9.00 K/9 in 2014. Furthermore, the league average pitcher had a 3.96 ERA/xFIP in 2015, versus a 4.16 in 2018. So the fact that Cole is posting the same numbers is actually better, since offense has gone up around the league.

Prior to the trade, Cole could have been seen as unreliable. He had a 4.26 ERA and a 3.81 xFIP last year. He had a 3.88 ERA and a 4.02 xFIP the year before, while dealing with some injuries. He was a good pitcher, but he wasn’t pitching like what you’d want from a top of the rotation guy, and wasn’t coming close to the numbers he put up in 2013-15.

If your goal was to win either in 2018 or the future, then you either needed to gamble that Cole would suddenly become a top of the rotation guy again, or trade him away and start a rebuild to improve your chances in the future. And you can see how there would be an argument before the season that Cole wasn’t going to do a complete 180.

Even after seeing what he’s done now, I’d say that he wasn’t going to do a 180 with the Pirates. And that’s entirely on the Pirates.

Why the Change?

I’ve spent so many words and articles detailing why Gerrit Cole has found success with the Astros, and how the Pirates had an out-dated approach, that I feel I could just skip this section and link to our previous articles (there are five links there, if you want to check out each word individually).

Here’s the summary: the Pirates had their pitchers throwing 60-70% fastballs, and breaking pitches around 20% of the time. This was after the league adjusted where hitters were hunting down fastballs with lift — especially sinkers low in the zone — and then pitchers adjusted to counter this lift with an increased amount of breaking pitches.

The Pirates didn’t adjust, and their fastball-heavy approach still led to good results (they were slightly above average for their rotation last year), but held back some of their top pitchers like Cole and Jameson Taillon.

Cole went to Houston, and while he’s made some adjustments with how he throws his fastball, leading to an increased amount of spin rate, he made bigger adjustments in how often he throws the breaking stuff. Last year Cole threw his fastball 60% of the time, which was low in his time with the Pirates, and threw the slider and curveball 29% of the time. The reduction in the fastball was mostly offset by an increase with the changeup.

This year, Cole is throwing his fastball 56% of the time, and throwing the breaking stuff 39.5% of the time, with the changeup seeing reduced usage. He was never over 30% breaking stuff with the Pirates, and it’s no surprise that he’s over that amount with the Astros, since the majority of their pitchers use a lot of breaking pitches, which helps to explain why they have the best strikeout rates in the majors and minors, and why Cole has seen his rate go up so much.

The good news is that the Pirates have adjusted their approach, not just in the majors, but throughout the system. Jameson Taillon, for example, added a new slider in late May, and has been throwing his breaking stuff a combined 43% of the time since then. He has a 3.15 ERA and a 3.63 xFIP in that span.

It does make you wonder what would have happened had they adjusted their approach sooner. I think the easy answer is that you would have seen this turnaround with Cole in Pittsburgh, although I’m not sure you could say that they’d go for Archer while still having Cole.

The key takeaway here is that Gerrit Cole looked like a pitcher who was unlikely to pitch like a top of the rotation guy in Pittsburgh, and now he looks like a top of the rotation guy, and all of that is due to the Pirates having an out-dated approach to pitching when Cole was here. Perhaps the Cole trade was needed to see how dated their approach was, but that doesn’t justify the trade, and doesn’t add to the value they got back. It just points out an unfortunate series of events that led to them updating their approach.

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