Gerrit Cole has a once in a decade type of arm. With a rather easy motion the big righty unleashes Justin Verlander-eque heat pumping 95, 96, 97, 98 mph gas toward helpless hitters. When he’s on there isn’t much offense to be had. When he’s on and bringing the K-ball with him, well, we’re talking about a youngster at that point who could be one of the greats.
Cole spent the early part of 2013 honing his craft at the minor league level. Not surprisingly the Triple-A batters stood little chance against his dynamic stuff, and the result was a 2.91 ERA and 1.06 WHIP over 12 starts. What was a concern though, despite the strong work, were two things that I always discuss when talking arms – the ability to strike batters out and to avoid giving up free bases. Here’s what I mean.
Despite consistently throwing 96 mph, Cole was only able to strike out 6.22 batters per nine innings over his 12 starts on the farm. That’s been a concern for a while now. Not the heat, that’s always been there, but the fact that the heater was often pretty straight. If he couldn’t even strike out 6.50 batters per nine in Triple-A who would he fair in the big leagues? More on that in a moment.
The second worry with Cole was that 3.71 BB/9 mark over the 12 starts. Not only were the Ks low, but the walk rate was also a three year high leading to a pathetic 1.68 K/BB ratio bringing back memories of Daniel Cabrera. That’s not a comparison anyone wants.
So Cole was called up, his talent too much to ignore despite some concerns, and the Pirates crossed their fingers and hoped that his stuff would rise to the surface.
It took all of one game.
In his first big league start on June 11th against the Giants Cole allowed only two runs over 6.1 innings to pick up a “W.” He went on to win his first four starts actually though he struck out a total of 11 batters in those four games (at least he only issued four walks). Moreover, Cole made 10-straight starts to begin his career with three or fewer earned runs allowed, and not one time did he fail to go at least five innings. He was off to a great start in the big leagues. Alas, it took until start #9 for him to have a game of six strikeouts and the questions persisted – why wasn’t he striking batters out? At least he wasn’t beating himself. All year he never walked more than three batters in an outing, an only once in his first 16 outings did he walk three. Impressive for anyone, let alone a rookie. Then something strange happened.
From September 9th on Cole became a punch-out machine. He struck out nine, seven, 12 and six batters for a total of 34 Ks in 26 innings to close out the regular season. He then made two starts in the post-season striking out 10 in 11 innings. So, which Cole will we see in 2014? (A) The guy who failed to record six or more Ks in 13 of his first 15 starts? (B) The guy who averaged 7.67 K/9 for the season? (C) The guy who struck out 44 batters over his last 37 innings, good for a Stephen Strasburg-esque 10.70 K/9? The answer to that question will go a long way to determining his fantasy outlook wouldn’t you say?
Cole played the role of expert dart thrower as well. When a guy can continually throw 96-98 mph and not walk anyone, that’s a pitcher I want on my team. Cole’s walk rate in 2013 was 2.15 per nine innings, a full batter below the big league mark. That’s excellent for any hurler let along a guy who could punch out a batter per inning.
What is my mantra on pitcher’s?
Find a guy who strikes batters out.
Check with Cole. I think.
Find a guy who doesn’t walk batters.
Check with Cole.
Find a guy who does both of things things while getting a lot of ground balls.
Check with Cole.
Over the 19 starts Cole made in the big leagues he generated a 49.1 percent ground ball rate, a great number. Given that he also had an insanely low 26.1 fly ball ratio his GB/FB ratio was 1.88. That’s an excellent number as well. One has to think that the 24.8 percent line drive rate he was saddled with last year comes down a bit, that’s just too much hard contact given his stuff, so there’s a chance his GB/FB ratio could even improve a bit in 2014. As a result of rarely allowing fly balls he stayed away from the big inning and the big fly in 2013 allowing only seven homers in 117.1 innings for a 0.54 HR/9 mark. I like that a lot.
While we’re talking about allowing hits, look at the consistency he tossed up there in 2013. It was only 469 batters faced in his abbreviated season, but there was nary a difference between how he handled righties and lefties and that’s a great sign.
vs. left: .250/.292/.296
vs. right: .255/.323/.306
So in total we have a guy who gets everyone out.
We’ve got a guy who generates ground balls.
We’ve got a guy who doesn’t give up the big fly.
We’ve got a guy who doesn’t beat himself with walks.
We’ve got a guy who improved in pretty much every conceivable way as the year wore on.
Some final numbers.
Over his last 12 starts Cole had a 2.85 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 75 Ks in 75.2 innings and he allowed batters a .235 batting average.
Cole’s young and a potential superstar, not like that’s a shock given that he was the first player taken in the 2011 Entry Draft. At the same time he’s likely to be overdrafted in 2014. He’s still rather raw, didn’t dominate in Triple-A last year, and though he killed it in the K column late in the year his slow work in Triple-A and over his first 15 starts in the big leagues with the old K-ball makes me a bit hesitant to look at him like he’s a surefire lock for a strikeout per inning. The Pirates were careful with his usage in 2013 but they also didn’t seem overly concerned with his workload either which is a good sign. After throwing 185 innings in 2013 there’s little reason to think he couldn’t hit 200 in 2014.
If you can avoid paying top dollar Cole is a strong investment for 2014. If you get to the draft table and he’s being evaluated as if he’s going to be an SP1 in 2014 I would recommend pulling back and letting someone else take that risk on with the fire-balling righty from Pittsburgh.
By Ray Flowers