SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER - Gerrit Cole threw 81 pitches in his debut Tuesday, sixty-five were fastballs.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was asked after the game if such a ratio – 80 percent fastballs – is a sustainable path to success.
Hurdle brushed off the question as if it was out of context. After all, Cole had left the game to a standing ovation, after a mostly dominant major league debut.
But the question is rooted in legitimate long-term concerns: most major league starting pitchers throw their fastballs between 50 and 65 percent of offerings. They have to mix in effective offspeed pitches to be effective. Cole isn’t there yet.
Cole came as advertised … but he has plenty of room to grow
Even Mets ace Matt Harvey, who has a monster fastball, throws it just 54 percent of the time. Stephen Strasburg has never thrown his fastball more than 64 percent of the time in a season, ditto for Justin Verlander.
And with Cole it wasn’t just a case of being nervous and trusting one pitch in his debut, Cole often leans heavily on his four-seam fastball, hence, his middling Triple-A strikeout ratio.
He loves pounding the zone with his fastball. He said as much after Tuesday’s start. Part of this is the organization stresses four-seam fastball command with its minor league pitchers, and Cole’s command has greatly improved: 2 walks over his last three starts. Part of it is Cole prizes efficiency over strikeout numbers. Cole needed just 81 pitches to get into the seventh inning.
It took Strasburg 53 career starts to reach the eighth inning. Cole will make it to the eighth in his first 10 starts, a fearless prediction.
Still, can any major league starter that’s not a knuckleballer or elite sinkerballer simply rely on one pitch 80 percent of the time for long?
You can if the pitch is good enough. Want evidence? Look no further than the NL Central.
St. Louis’ own prized right-handed fireballer, Shelby Miller, is throwing his fastball 74.2 percent of the time, among the highest rates in baseball.
Miller is 7-3 with 1.91 ERA.
Yes, Virginia, you can get by with one pitch … if it’s really good. And Cole’s fastball is really, really good.
Cole doesn’t quite have the elite extension or lanky limbs of Miller, but he has more velocity. 99 is 99.
*Cole’s fastball averaged 96.1 mph last night according to Baseball Info Solutions.
*Strasburg and Harvey entered the night with the top average fastball velocities in the NL at 95.4 mph. (Justin Verlander averaged 95.4 mph with his fastball in 2010).
So if Cole can maintain that velocity, he might have the fastest fastball in baseball among starters. And I think he can maintain it.
On Wednesday I witnessed him hit 99 mph on his 88th pitch at Indy. On Tuesday his 81st pitch traveled at 81 mph. He threw 36 pitches that were 96 mph +.
And while the command wasn’t elite Tuesday, he was pounding the strike zone with the pitch, and on occasion painted the corners. His plane was good, as most of his fastballs were down in the zone. He produced 10 groundouts vs. six flyouts.
In short, combine rare velocity with average to slightly above-average command and you can get by throwing one pitch 80 percent of the time.
But the thing is Cole has other pitches, other good pitches.
His slider is a true swing-and-miss pitch. Russell Martin said Cole was actually throwing a curveball last night, so Cole might have temporarily shelved his slider. He only threw 16 breaking balls, but he did get Buster Posey to swing-and-miss.
Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer thinks Cole’s 86-90 mph changeup could be his best pitch if he can harness command of it. He thinks it could be a true strikeout pitch.
He has stuff similar to Strasburg’s but he does not enter the majors with the command Strasburg possessed.
Cole was very good Tuesday, but he is just scratching the surface of his pitching potential. When and if Cole begins to trust and command his very good but inconsistent offspeed pitchers, he become not only an efficient pitcher, but the best kind of efficient pitcher: an efficient strikeout pitcher.
It was an impressive opening act from a young pitcher with plenty of room to grow.