Former first-overall draft pick Gerrit Cole debuted with the Pirates last week to much fanfare. After just two starts, he has become a major topic of discussion in Pittsburgh. Sean Meyers and Patrick Williams, along with new contributor John Riggs, give their thoughts on the Buccos’ flamethrower.
What is your initial impression of Cole?
SM: I am surprised that he seems to be a contact pitcher, and an efficient one at that. Most pitchers who can throw in the high 90s with regularity don’t seem to possess the command that Cole already has at the age of 22. He seems like he is poised on the mound on a big stage, as evidenced by his wins over two previous Cy Young winners.
PW: So far, I like what I see. The kid has a straightforward approach and doesn’t seem to be easily rattled. He pitches to contact and isn’t quite the swing and miss guy that you’d expect from someone possessing his “stuff”. I like his poise and composure to this point, but it is pretty early and we will need to see how he will deal in different situations moving forward.
JR: It looks like the extra time in the minors gave him time to figure out the kind of pitcher he wants to be, and the kind of pitcher that can be successful in the major leagues. Of course, striking out the first batter he faced and throwing 99 was impressive, but what I like most about him is his confidence in his pitches, and how he isn’t afraid to challenge batters and pitch to contact. The ability to have lower pitch counts but also crank it up there when he needs to is something every major league pitcher wants.
What role will he play with the Pirates this season?
SM: Due to circumstances, I believe he could play a much bigger role than originally expected. I believe he will stay in the rotation, and could actually be one of the better pitchers on the staff going forward. With injuries to AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens and others, Cole is one of the few healthy bodies as this point. However, I expect some of the other starters like Jeff Locke and Fransisco Liriano to regress at some point. Often, a young, talented pitcher can have a very successful run over the first few months in the big leagues before offenses really make adjustments. If this happens with Cole, he could prove to perhaps be ahead of everyone but Burnett by season’s end.
PW: I basically see him being a guy that falls into the lower portion of the rotation for the rest of the year. If he continues to pitch well there is no reason not to keep him around. I am sure he can learn some things on this level from some of the staff like A.J. Burnett and the coaches. And he is probably in good hands with the catchers the Pirates have as they can manage a game, keep base runners at bay, and will go all out to make a play for him.
JR: He came up when there was a need, but the regular job should be his. He should get the ball every fifth day and try to get the game to the Pirates’ bullpen.
Should coaches or management place any limitations on his usage?
SM: Yes, but nothing specific as far as numbers. Cole’s huge frame works in his favor, I believe. I tend to think of large, almost corpulent pitchers as being some of the healthiest when it comes to arm ailments. CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez are two examples of big-framed pitchers who have proven extremely durable despite a significant work load over their careers. Although he’s not quite Sabathia size, Cole is already listed at 240 pounds. Maybe skip his turn in the rotation once or give him a shorter outing next time if Cole really labors in a particular start. The key will be monitoring that his velocity stays strong all year, and that he avoids many “major stress” innings, in which he throws more than 30 pitchers.
PW: He is a work horse type of pitcher, but you always want to monitor a young kid and his usage when coming into the league. You never know how an arm will hold up when you first start pitching the innings over the course of a whole MLB season. Cole has the advantage of being a June call-up and doesn’t have the wear and tear or innings on his young cannon of an arm. I’d keep an eye on him, but wouldn’t treat him any different than anyone else unless some anomalies arise moving forward.
JR: I think they should, but I don’t know what the number is. They don’t know either. The way he is pitching right now, there isn’t any problem, but it’s been shown before that with hard throwing pitchers less is best. Mark Prior was supposed to be the next great thing but fell apart. Strasburg came in pretty dominant, but needed Tommy John surgery and a year to come back. With the way the bullpen is performing this year, there’s no reason to push him.
What is the long-term outlook for him?
SM: I don’t want to use the term “the sky is the limit,” but his future should be very promising. He’s already been effective, so we know his approach can work. In addition, his impressive velocity makes his primary pitch well above average. This season, however, his strikeout numbers have been rather mediocre for a pitcher of his talent, including just three strikeouts over 12 major league innings. Cole will almost certainly see an increase his strikeout rate as he continues to improve, but he may never become a “strikeout pitcher.” If this is the case, he will have to compensate in other areas. This means he will likely have to maintain low walk and home run rates. Cole can probably be a very effective pitcher without the strikeouts, but his margin for error will be much smaller in that scenario. To increase his strikeout numbers, he would be well-served to develop secondary pitches, and to add more movement to his fastballs. In his first two starts, Cole has thrown approximately 80% fastballs, and they seem to be pretty straight. If he can develop a strike out pitch at the major league level, and garner a few more strikeouts by changing speeds and movement of his fastballs, he should become a top of the rotation starter.
PW: I would hope that he is the real deal. Could you imagine having Cole and his Pac-10 counterpart Mark Appel as the number one and two starters on this team for the next decade? But that wasn’t to be. Still, I can see Gerrit Cole being a solid second starter on this club if he stays healthy and that also means between the ears. I know he has a chip on his shoulder for not being on the big league roster to start this season, but I like that fire. He is a competitor and he has the tools, that is a combination that I would bet on more times than not.
JR: Long term he will be one of the pitchers the staff is built around. It’s a shame to look ahead in the middle of a great season like this, but Wandy and Burnett won’t be around much longer. Hopefully with Cole, Locke, and Taillon, pitching will continue to be a strength.
Should the failures of past Pirates prospects affect fans’ expectations of Cole?
SM: Pirates fans have been tortured over the past 20 seasons by the team’s failures. Perhaps the biggest disappointments have come with the repeated failure of top notch draft picks to pan out. From 1998 to 2007, the Pirates basically wasted first-round draft picks on seven pitchers: Clinton Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John VanBenschoten, Bryan Bullington, Brad Lincoln and Daniel Moskos. Burnett and Lincoln have had some success out of the bullpen, but overall these picks have all been miserable busts. As a result, Pirates fans want so badly to root for Cole and see him succeed. At the same time, fans should look to some of the aforementioned players as a caution that there are no sure things in baseball. A single arm injury could derail his career and crush the fans’ dreams of Coles’ stardom. Pitchers are more unpredictable than position players, and although Cole seems to have a great chance to make it, fans should not start predicting Cy Young awards in his future just yet. Zach Duke looked great in his first season, as well.
PW: In a vacuum it shouldn’t, but how can’t they help but to have a short memory? Or in this case, a memory that spans about twenty years. Time will see if this is just another Oliver Perez or Kris Benson. But these Pirates seem to be hell bent on exorcising the ghosts of failure’s past. And I think there is a general feel of optimism or at least a wait and see mentality with giving these guys a shot before they start to write them off.
JR: Most Pirates fans will probably be cautious for the rest of their lives, and rightfully so, but there’s no reason not to be cautiously optimistic. I wouldn’t expect decades long dominant Roger Clemens type career, but a solid major league starter with spurts of greatness here and there seems appropriate. I give Huntington the benefit of the doubt. He hasn’t missed too much so far.