GERRIT COLE, RIGHT HANDED PITCHER
|Born: September 8, 1990
Height: 6′ 4″
Drafted: 1st Round, 1st Overall, 2011
How Acquired: Draft
Agent: Scott Boras
WTM’S PLAYER PROFILE
|Cole and Matt Purke went into the 2011 season as the most highly, draft-eligible regarded pitchers, although most observers ranked them both behind Anthony Rendon. Purke’s stuff dropped off significantly, leaving Rendon and Cole as the presumptive top talents for much of the season, but both had disappointing years. In the end, the Pirates decided to take Cole over Rendon and Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen. Cole was also drafted in the first round by the Yankees in 2008, but preferred to attend UCLA.
Cole by all accounts had the best stuff of any available pitcher. He throws a low-90s two-seam and mid-90s four-seam fastball. The latter reaches the upper-90s and late in the season was reaching triple digits on occasion, even in the late innings. He has two other pitches, an upper-80s slider and a change, that are both regarded as plus pitches. He has a strong frame and a delivery that scouts regard as clean, according to Baseball America. Cole generally throws strikes, but weak command within the strike zone led to him getting hit hard in some games during the 2011 season. He finished with the highest ERA of any of UCLA’s regular pitchers and his peripheral numbers for the most part were also below the team average. This was not a new development: he also had the highest ERA among the team’s regular pitchers in 2010. Pirates GM Neal Huntington, however, likes big pitchers with power arms.
The Pirates’ selection of Cole was a significant gamble. His command was obviously more of a work in progress than would normally be expected from a pitcher from a major college taken first overall, and he may not reach the majors as quickly as would generally be expected. The fact that he’s represented by Scott Boras added to the gamble, but he signed as expected at the last moment . . . or at least MLB delayed the announcement until midnight on August 15. In a very large surprise, Cole signed a minor league contract, although the bonus was a team record $8M.
The Pirates started Cole off at Bradenton and he had minimal difficulty there. He moved up to Altoona at mid-season and had a little more trouble, mainly in the form of running up pitch counts a little too quickly. His stuff was as expected, with a fastball sitting in the mid-90s and occasionally reaching 100, and a plus slider and change. The main issue will continue to be his command, but he clearly made progress on it in 2012. The Pirates moved him up to Indianapolis at the end of the season, no doubt to give him a chance to pitch in the International League playoffs. His one regular season start got off to a shaky start, as the first three hitters he faced ended up scoring, but he settled down and pitched very well after that. In his one playoff start, though, he got severely bombed.
Cole opened in AAA and seemed to spend much of his time there searching for a pitching profile. Initially, he seemed to be trying to strike hitters out and ran into trouble with high pitch counts, leading to early exits. He overcame that problem and pitched very effectively, except with low K rates. He made enough progress that the Pirates called him up on June 11 and he made his first major league start that day. He was reasonably effective from the start, but with a very low K rate (4.1 K/9 in his first four starts, all of which he won) that caused considerable consternation among some fans. Cole’s performance gradually evolved — his K rate increased and, initially he started giving up more hits. According to press accounts, he started using his four-seam fastball more and his two-seamer less, and started relying more on his curve than his slider. According to Pfx, he didn’t throw a curve, but instead threw a slider and cutter. My guess is that Pfx is having classification problems, and is identifying Cole’s curve as a slider and his slider as a cutter. Everything he throws is harder than most pitchers, with his fastball averaging 95-96 and occasionally reaching 100. Among all starters with 100+ IP, he had the highest average velocity except for Nathan Eovaldi.
Things seemed to come together for Cole in September. In five starts, he went 4-0, 1.69, with a 1.06 WHIP and 11.0 K/9. (Hopefully, that last number will quiet the panic over Cole’s K rate.) For the season, Cole had a good groundball rate of 49.1%. His xFIP (3.14) was nearly identical to his ERA, so there’s nothing fluky about his season. He didn’t allow many extra-base hits, holding hitters to a .336 slugging average and .083 ISO. Cole continued his success in the playoffs, allowing only three runs and five hits in 11 innings against the NL’s best offensive team. Cole even hit respectably, batting .206 and driving in five runs, which equalled the total of all the team’s other pitchers. The Pirates were cautious with Cole. They didn’t impose an innings limit, as the Nationals famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) did with Stephen Strasburg. They did, however, limit his pitch counts; he reached 100 only once, and then only 101. Significantly, in 19 starts he never failed to go five innings.
Cole had a mildly disappointing season, due in part to health problems. He went on the disabled list in early June with shoulder fatigue. At that point, his velocity was slipping to the low-90s at times, especially in the middle innings. (Despite this, his average fastball velocity changed little from the previous year.) He returned at the end of the month, only to go on the DL again a week and a half later with right lat soreness. After a fairly long rehab, he rejoined the Pirates’ rotation in late August. Cole finished the season strongly: in his last three starts, over 21 innings, he allowed just five runs on 14 hits and two walks, and fanned 27. On the season, hitters batted 248/314/379 against him, up a little from the 253/302/336 of 2013. Left handed hitters had a .729 OPS against him, right-handed hitters .659. The advanced stats suggest Cole may have been a little better in his first two seasons than the more traditional stats suggest. His BABIPs of .308 and .311 were a little on the high side, and his xFIP of 3.14 in 2013 and 3.25 in 2014 was lower than his ERA in both cases. Cole continued to put up more of a fight at the plate than the rest of the team’s pitching staff, hitting .174 with his first career HR.
Cole step forward as a legitimate ace, posting the most wins by a Pirates pitcher since 1992 and the lowest ERA by a Pirates ERA qualifier since 1985. He had a terrific first half; by June 18, he was 11-2 with a 1.78 ERA. He was consistently effective, though, as his worst monthly ERA was 3.29. Opponents managed just a 239/287/336 line against him and he was slightly more effective against left-handed than right-handed hitters. Cole’s workload increased by 48 innings over the previous year, although only by 23 over his career high. The Pirates gave him four extra days of rest between starts at one point in September in an effort to keep the increase down a little. He had a groundball rate a little higher than average, at 48%. He’s still never thrown a complete game and reached eight innings just twice in 2015, but he never gets knocked out early. In 73 career starts he’s never gone fewer than four innings and has failed to go five only three times.
Cole had a disappointing, injury-plagued season. He pitched reasonably well through mid-June, although not quite as well as the previous year because he was allowing a lot of hits and having to throw too many pitches in some games, leading to earlier-than-ideal exits. In mid-June, he went out for a month with a forearm strain. In his third game back, he threw his first career complete game, against Seattle, allowing only three hits and needing just 94 pitches. At that point, he had a 2.78 ERA, but he started struggling two games later. At the end of August, he went on the disabled list again, this time with elbow inflammation. A medical exam supposedly showed no structural damage. Cole returned for one game in mid-September and lasted only two innings. The next day he went on the 60-day DL, again with elbow inflammation, ending his season. While Cole was out the second time, the Pirates collapsed and fell far behind in the wild card race. It’s difficult not to suspect that they brought him back in a desperate attempt to salvage the season. In the six starts after his complete game, he had an ERA of 7.22 and WHIP of 2.02. Cole didn’t lose fastball velocity at any point, and didn’t throw any fewer strikes than previously, except in his very last start. His groundball rate dropped just slightly. His command within the strike zone, though, was apparently much worse than previously and he got 17% fewer swinging strikes than the previous year. His problems were almost entirely with left-handed hitters, who had a 329/381/488 line against him. He held right-handed hitters to 253/312/340.
After a strong start, Cole had a very disappointing season. His season divides into a series of good and bad stretches:
April 3 to May 17 (9 starts): 2.84 ERA
The problem was almost entirely gopher balls. Cole allowed 31 in 33 starts after allowing just 36 in 94 previous career starts. He continued to allow more hits than a pitcher with his stuff should allow, but he wasn’t as hittable as in 2016 and his walk and K rates were good. Much of the damage came against left-handed hitters, who had 18 of the HRs and a 268/317/477 line against him. Right-handed hitters batted 241/295/393, which was still too much power allowed. Cole’s HR/FB percentage spiked to 15.9%; his previous career high was 9.4%. The reason for it isn’t easy to find, as his groundball rate didn’t change and he wasn’t getting hit harder, at least by Fangraphs’ measure. Cole’s velocity didn’t change. He did at least stay healthy and make all his starts.
Cole will go into his second arbitration season in 2018, with free agency ahead after the 2019 season. The gopher ball problem hopefully can be addressed, or maybe even was just a fluke. It’s never been close to an issue before. It wouldn’t be surprising if he became the subject of trade rumors, as there’s no realistic chance of the Pirates signing him to an extension.
|Signing Bonus: $8,000,000
MiLB Debut: 2012
MLB Debut: 6/11/13
MiLB FA Eligible: 2017
MLB FA Eligible: 2019
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 6/11/13
Options Remaining: 3
MLB Service Time: 4.111
|June 5, 2008: Drafted by the New York Yankees in the 1st round, 28th overall pick.
June 6, 2011: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1st round, 1st overall pick; signed on August 15.
June 11, 2013: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.