Pirates Welcome Gerrit Cole to The Show

The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation will receive an infusion of talent on Tuesday night.

The Pirates No. 1 prospect, Gerrit Cole, will make his major-league debut when he takes the mound against the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants and two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum. Prior to the 2013 season, I ranked the 22-year-old pitcher as the No. 1 prospect in the Pirates’ system and the sixth-best prospect in all of baseball. The California native has been on the prospect landscape a long time. He was selected by the New York Yankees in the first round of the 2008 draft (28th overall) but spurned them for a career at UCLA. After his junior year, in 2011, the prospect’s value was at an all-time high and Cole was taken first overall by the Pirates.

He didn’t begin his pro career until 2012, but after starting out in A-ball, he reached Triple-A at the end of his first season. Cole returned to the highest level of the minor leagues in 2013 and produced a 2.91 ERA with just 44 hits allowed in 68 innings. After posting a strikeout rate of more than nine batters per nine innings, Cole’s rate has dropped to just 6.22 K/9. The dip is not as alarming as it initially might seem.

During the offseason, while researching the Pirates’ Top 15 list, I had a front office contact tell me what Cole needed to do to improve his game. “The next level for Gerrit will be continuing his maturation process as a professional pitcher, specifically how he uses his weapons to effectively and efficiently attack major-league caliber hitters,” I was told. At the same time, a scout told me Pirates pitching prospects typically had underwhelming strikeout rates because they’re taught to favor two-seam fastballs — rather than four-seamers — to pitch to contact and to keep their pitch counts down.

I watched Cole’s last minor league start on June 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays Triple-A affiliate. He looks the part of a workhorse: A big league pitcher — he’s 6-foot-4 — and weighs 240 pounds. He came out throwing strikes and attacking the zone while pitching off his fastball. His first two pitches were fastballs at 94 mph and 95 mph before veteran minor league outfielder Rich Thompson singled. The opponents’ second hit against Cole came in the third inning and didn’t make it out of the infield. From that point batters managed only one more hit, and Cole ended the game with just three hits allowed and one walk in seven shutout innings.

Cole’s heavy fastball is so good he used it almost exclusively the first time through the lineup. He displayed a mature approach and clearly wasn’t worried about striking out batters. I saw his heater up as high as 98 mph, with explosive arm-side run, and I’d probably give it a 70 rating on the 20-80 scale. His slider, though, was inconsistent. The best breaking ball I saw in the game was a downward breaking curveball at the end of the third inning that resulted in a line-drive out to the third baseman. After favoring his heater in the first three innings, he mixed in all three of his secondary pitches, starting with his second time through the lineup. He made the Rays’ top prospect Wil Myers — who went 0-for-4 — look quite ordinary.

What worried me was that both his slider and his changeup came in around 86 mph to 88 mph and I’d prefer to see more separation in velocity between the two offerings. He fought his command in both the third and fifth inning where it appeared he was rushing his delivery. I’m not crazy about the delivery, either. It’s somewhat stiff through his trunk and upper body. He’s strong frame should help his body hold up longer than some pitchers, but, in the long term, I worry about the stress he puts on his shoulder.

Cole ascends to the majors on a hot streak and he looks ready to help the Pirates chase down an elusive playoff berth. In his past two starts, he’s allowed just five hits and two walks in 14 innings. He should hold his own at the big-league level based solely on the strength of his plus-fastball and improved command and control. It will be the development of his secondary pitches that determines how quickly he becomes an impact player for his organization.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospect analysis. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

12 Responses to “Pirates Welcome Gerrit Cole to The Show”

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  1. leefoo says:

    Great article, Mark. I am a Pirate fan and I love your chats and articles. Keep up the great work!

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  2. CabreraDeath says:

    FWIW, I think many (obviously not Mark) are overemphasizing the 6.2 K/9 this year. Use of the 2-seamer, cutting down on the slider, and working (specifically) on command/control rather than K numbers….all lead to those results.

    In other words, the Ks will come, in my opinion. Watching him today will be baseball-porn (at least to Bucs fans).

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    • Dan says:

      I can’t wait either. I am in a deep fantasy league and I have him hoping to bring me out of the ashes of the bottom of the league table. I am a Detroit fan, but I also like Pittsburgh just out of hoping they can bring together a winning season. Lesgoooo Cole!

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    • Doc says:

      i agree with you.

      i believe that instead trying to overpower hitters in the minors for the sake of a nice k/9, he has been working on his secondary offerings so that they are more polished when he reaches the majors.

      i have no factual evidence of this, but find it odd that his strikeout ability would dimish that much in one off-season without a specific change in approach.

      in short, yes, the strikeouts will come.

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      • CabreraDeath says:

        PGH media has had interviews w/ Cole, AAA-pitching coach, and front office personnel….that all discuss the approach to AAA this year. While not ‘factual evidence’, it seems there was a concerted effort to limit use of the slider (an obvious out-pitch and swing-n-miss stuff), work more on the 2-seamer (to increase groundballs and become more efficient), and to work on going deeper in games (tied in w/ the use of the 2-seamer.

        While it’s not conclusive cause-n-effect to decrease in Ks, it seems to be a major reason why, at least in my opinion and theirs.

        I’m just as confident (actually, moreso) that Cole will have an adjustment period, but that he will eventually become a better pitcher because of his AAA work this year.

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        • LuckyStrikes says:

          He’s going to need that slider as an out-pitch in MLB, so seems strange for PIT to limit it’s use if it’s really a plus pitch. We’ll see, but I’m skeptical as well…I think he will take awhile to adjust, especially if his command doesn’t improve quickly. Most likely, he’ll be shipped back to AAA after this first start regardless of the outcome.

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  3. TKay says:

    I wish he could have stayed in AAA to work out some things. Just looking at the numbers, seems like the K% and BB% are not showing dominance at the level, and Marc’s point about the slider and change-up velocity differential gives me concern. But with injuries, they don’t have many good options.

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  4. Andrew says:

    Matt Harvey’s FB/slider differential works just fine, at 88 vs. 95? Is Harvey’s slider just better overall, on movement, command, etc.?

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  5. derp says:

    Jays analyst Gregg Zaun actually made a good point about Kevin Gausman back at his debut that could apply here. Minor league hitters suck, they suck so badly that anyone who can throw a mid 90’s+ fastball with decent command can completely overwhelm them, regardless of the quality of their other pitches. Gausman wasn’t going to get a chance to develop his other pitches if he could throw bad ones and the hitters just end up swinging at it anyways, and at that point in his career the only way he’s going to improve is by facing major league lineups that force him to get better.

    Maybe that was because Gausman was walking less batters than Greg Maddux, but whatever.

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  6. Steve Holt says:

    At the same time, a scout told me Pirates pitching prospects typically had underwhelming strikeout rates because they’re taught to favor two-seam fastballs — rather than four-seamers — to pitch to contact and to keep their pitch counts down whilst running through minefields carrying military backpacks firing AK-47’s

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  7. Leo Walter says:

    Whilst certainly suffering from sleep deprivation,Steve,maybe you pought to avoid keyboards to keep from apperaing to be a dick ?

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  8. Leo Walter says:

    Sorry for the spelling,I was trying to avoid detection by my supervisor. I meant to type ( Steve ) “… ought to avoid keyboards to keep from appearing to be a dick “

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