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Are the Pirates Making a Mistake with Cole?

In the run-up to tonight’s MLB draft, the Pirates have been linked to a host of various players at different times, but this weekend the chatter all began to point toward Pittsburgh selecting UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole. This morning, Jonathan Mayo reported that the decision had been made, and Cole would indeed be the first player taken in the draft. The Pirates are choosing Cole over Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, fellow teammate and RHP Trevor Bauer (who has frequently out-pitched Cole this year, especially of late), Virginia southpaw Danny Hultzen, and high school standout outfielder Bubba Starling.

In terms of stuff, no one can compete with Cole in this draft, and few pitchers in Major League Baseball can match up either. He’s routinely been clocked in the upper-90s, touching 100 at times, and comfortably sits in the 94-98 range. Velocity is not a question for Cole, but what made him so exciting earlier in the spring was that his changeup was drawing rave reviews. He’d always had the power fastball/slider combination, but adding a nasty changeup gave him three plus pitches that he could throw strikes with, and given his size and velocity, he’s essentially a scout’s dream.

But the results just haven’t matched the stuff this year. Among the four pitchers who have started for UCLA this year, Cole has the highest ERA, the most home runs allowed, and the highest opponents batting average. Now, these aren’t exactly the kinds of numbers you see quoted on FanGraphs all that much, but the reality is that we can’t simply look at Cole’s relatively high BABIP and pronounce it a fluke, as there could be pitcher control over batting average on balls in play at the college level. We know that there’s not much difference in the Major Leagues, but that could easily be due to selection bias – pitchers who don’t have a Major League level of limiting hits on balls in play don’t make it to the show to begin with (or don’t last long if they do). It’s possible that BABIP could have some predictive usefulness at the college level – there hasn’t been any conclusive research published on that yet.

Of course, it could also just be some bad luck. A guy with Cole’s stuff shouldn’t be hittable, and we are taking about a sample of just over 100 innings, after all. Given that college statistics aren’t great predictors of professional success anyway, the Pirates could make a pretty strong case that the numbers that really matter are the grades the scouts put on his pitches, and those are all unmatched by any other pitcher in this draft. But perhaps the real question is should the Pirates be drafting a pitcher #1 overall to begin with?

Here are the pitchers who have been taken #1 overall since the draft was born: Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Luke Hochevar, Bryan Bullington, Matt Anderson, Kris Benson, Paul Wilson, Brien Taylor, Ben McDonald, Andy Benes, Tim Belcher, Mike Moore, Floyd Bannister, and David Clyde. That’s 14 pitchers, and the best one of the group is probably Benes, who threw about 2,500 innings of slightly-above-average baseball. That’s not a good history, obviously, though Price has the talent to set a new standard and Strasburg may still make strong comeback once he gets healthy.

But we can’t just look at those 14 guys. After all, there are pitchers taken after the first pick who have done extremely well, and they were available to select with the #1 pick. So, let’s look at pitchers taken in the top five, and, to be fair to Cole, let’s limit our scope to college pitchers – high school arms come with their own set of unique risks that don’t apply to this particular situation.

Looking at picks two through five gives us success stories like Justin Verlander, Jack McDowell, Kevin Brown, Jon Matlack, Greg Swindell, and Alex Fernandez. Brown won’t get into Cooperstown, but you could make a strong case that he should, and McDowell was one of the game’s better pitchers during the first half of the 1990s. Like Fernandez, the White Sox got good value from him before their rights to his services expired, and the fact that he broke down early doesn’t change the fact that they got a strong return on their investment.

But those success stories pale in comparison to what you see when you look at what college hitters taken in the same range have produced. Even if you just limit yourself to college third baseman (to find a comparable pool of players for Anthony Rendon), you see Matt Williams, Mark Teixeira, Troy Glaus, Evan Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ryan Braun. That position alone has produced more value from top five draft picks than pitchers have, and that’s not even accounting for the dramatic difference in quantity of players taken at each position – 13 college third baseman versus 59 college pitchers.

Sure, you can point to guys like Alex Gordon and Pedro Alvarez as examples of why premium position players may not live up to the hype, but the reality is that they are the exception rather than the rule, and with pitchers it’s exactly the opposite; a highly drafted pitcher who doesn’t bust is the exception.

That’s not to say that no teams should ever draft pitchers, or that you should always take a hitter at the top of the draft. Hard and fast rules are hardly ever a good idea to live by, and every situation is indeed different. But when there’s a premium college position player available, you should be completely convinced that the potential reward is dramatically higher with the pitcher, because there’s a huge risk difference that needs to be offset. Most people would agree that the gap between the upside with Strasburg and Dustin Ackley made the Strasburg pick sensible, and his pre-injury performance certainly backed up that claim. That’s a case where you can’t fault the team for taking the pitcher.

But Gerrit Cole is simply not Stephen Strasburg. His stuff is good, but his performances haven’t lived up to the stuff, and it’s not even a consensus that Cole is the best pitching prospect on his own team. He’s a good arm, certainly, and he could have a nice career, but I think history suggests that the Pirates may be making a mistake here. Even with questions about his shoulder and his own perceived disappointing season, Rendon is still far more likely to produce as a big leaguer than Cole, or any of the other arms the Pirates could have chosen.

Good college bats are, by far, the safest bet in any Major League draft. There’s a good college bat on the board, and Pittsburgh should probably take him instead of Gerrit Cole.