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Gerrit Cole And The Star Power Of Top Prospects

Highly-touted prospect Gerrit Cole made his major-league debut for the Pirates on Tuesday night.  The 22-year-old right handed pitcher was the first overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft. Heading into this season, Baseball America ranked Cole as No. 7 on the list of top 100 prospects. Even with the Pirates in contention in the National League Central — or perhaps because of it — Cole’s arrival in Pittsburgh was much anticipated.

Less than 30 minutes before first pitch, Pittsburgh sports columnist Dejan Kovacevic sent this tweet:

The security “fiasco” referred to the Pirates’ implementing a new security plan at PNC Park on Tuesday night: all fans would be “wanded” before going through the turnstiles. As John Perrotto reported:

The lines stretched for blocks and a significant number of the 30,614 in attendance missed Cole striking out Giants left fielder Gregor Blanco on three pitches to open the game. It’s one of those moments you never get back as a fan.

According to some of those who got caught in line, security was understaffed and extremely slow in the wanding procedures.

Of course, fans waiting in line to enter the ballpark had already purchased their tickets. Sure, some fans might have come to the ballpark intending to buy walk-up tickets, seen the security lines, and left. Or not. We’ll never know.

But let’s focus on the additional 8,000 tickets the Pirates sold after announcing on Saturday that Cole would make his debut on Tuesday — a three-day lead time, not four as Kovacevic tweeted. Is that applause-worthy? Or not that much of a big deal, as Kovacevic remarked? How does that compare to extra tickets sold for the major-league debuts of other highly-touted prospects?

It’s not an easy question to answer.

Single-game ticket sales increase for a variety of reasons. Good weather, promotions and giveaways, and a winning team bring fans out to the ballpark.  Weekend games tend to have higher attendance than weekday games. Certain teams, like the Yankees and Red Sox, attract big crowds in every city.

Even with those caveats, it’s worth taking a look how attendance spiked — or didn’t — at the home debut of recent top prospects. The below table identifies eight pitchers and nine position players who were ranked between No. 1 and No. 11 in Baseball America‘s Top 100 prospects in the year the player debuted. The one exception is Matt Harvey, who was ranked No. 54 last year before the Mets called him up in late July. I included Harvey because he was surrounded by a good deal of hype, perhaps because of the New York spotlight.

For pitchers, I included only top prospects who broke into the majors as starters. So you won’t find Chris Sale, Matt Moore, or Shelby Miller on the list. I took the same approach with hitters. Buster Posey, for example, was a September call-up for the Giants in 2009, the year he was BA’s No. 14 prospect. But he subbed into several games before finally getting a start behind the plate the last week of the season. Jason Heyward, BA’s No. 5 prospect heading into the 2010 season, didn’t make the cut because he debuted on Opening Day, which has its own special attendance magic.

With the players identified, I looked at the attendance for their home debut, compared to the attendance for their team’s last home game prior to the debut and the home game immediately following it. I also noted what day of the week the debut took place, as we’d expect to see an attendance bump on the weekends. My goal was to try to isolate the debut factor as much as possible.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.


Players BA Prospect Ranking Team Home Debut As a Starter Home Debut Attendance Prior Home Game Att. Next Home Game Att.
Tim Lincecum 2007 No. 11 Giants 5/6/2007 (Sunday) 38,738 40,796 37,365
Clayton Kershaw 2008 No. 7 Dodgers 5/25/2008 (Sunday) 46,566 44,785 39,098
Tommy Hanson 2009 No. 4 Braves 6/7/2009 (Sunday) 33,428 32,721 21,856
Madison Bumgarner 2009 No. 9 Giants 9/8/2009 (Tuesday) 34,524 37,132 30,312
Stephen Strasburg 2010 No. 2 Nationals 6/8/2010 (Tuesday) 40,315 27,202 18,876
Matt Harvey 2012 No. 54 Mets 8/10/2012 (Friday) 25,101 28,985 30,388
Jose Fernandez 2013 No. 5 Marlins 4/13/2013 (Saturday) 20,037 17,923 21,412
Gerrit Cole 2012 No. 7 Pirates 6/11/2013 (Tuesday) 30,614 29,407 19,966
Justin Upton 2007 No. 9 Dbacks 8/7/2007 (Tuesday) 25,340 30,535 23,082
Evan Longoria 2008 No. 2 Rays 4/12/2008 (Saturday) 19,295 12,146 16,748
Jay Bruce 2008 No. 1 Reds 5/27/2008 (Tuesday) 17,964 34,612 15,797
Matt Wieters 2009 No. 1 Orioles 5/29/2009 (Friday) 42,704 11,937 34,567
Giancarlo Stanton 2010 No. 3 Marlins 6/15/2010 (Tuesday) 17,130 11,717 17,014
Mike Moustakas 2011 No. 9 Royals 6/21/2011 (Tuesday) 19,305 13,941 14,265
Mike Trout 2011 No. 2 Angels 7/8/2011 (Friday) 40,161 31,549 44,111
Bryce Harper 2012 No. 1 Nationals 5/1/2012 (Tuesday) 22,675 26,745 16,274
Manny Machado 2012 No. 11 Orioles 8/9/2012 (Thursday) 21,226 17,312 17,277

Among pitching prospects, the only one who seems to have moved the needle more than Gerrit Cole is Stephen Strasburg. Look at the drop off in attendance between Cole’s debut and the game the next day: nearly 10,000 fewer fans at PNC Park to see the Pirates take on the Giants. There was also a big drop off after Tommy Hanson‘s debut, but his first game was on a Sunday — a day with traditionally high attendance. I’d guess the decline in attendance the next home game had more to do with it being a weekday than anything else.

With the position player prospects, Orioles fans seemed the most responsive to the hype. Attendance at Matt Wieters‘ and Manny Machado‘s home debuts were significantly  higher than the games before and after, particularly when you take the usual weekend bump into account.

So good on you, Pittsburgh. Perhaps Dejan Kovacevic doesn’t think 8,000 extra tickets sold is big deal. But when compared to the home debuts of other highly-regarded prospects, Gerrit Cole‘s star attraction shines pretty bright.