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Gerrit Cole is a one-trick pony, right now, but it’s a good trick

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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.

 

- TS

(@Sawchik_Trib)

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Comments

  1. Nate83 says:

    I am assuming that Cole did not shake off many of Martins calls if any at all. Wouldn’t the high percentage be attributed to Martin calling for it. It seems as if he may have been saying hey kid your fastball is good enough to get these guys out. With it being your first game let’s just throw that and not mess with getting behind in the count. A keep it simple kind of approach for a young pitcher.

    Also if the fastball is that good why show any team the other stuff the first time you play them. The second time they play the Giants if he throws 55% fastballs it will be like facing a completely different pitcher.

    Good stuff Travis. I really appreciate the hard work and insight. Why no John Hart reference?(: When referring to Cole he always says this is what they look like. I like Jonh Hart as well. He seems less concerned with scouting reports and more concerned with what his eyes see.

  2. JohnS says:

    I wish the MLB would decide if it is better to pitch to contact or get strikeouts. It seems to go back and forth.

    I know the sabrematricians will point to an unsustainable BABIP need to get swings and misses. I like pitchers that limit walks and can get the SO when needed.

  3. Nate83 says:

    I agree completely. I like a pitcher that can get the strikout when needed. Strikeouts can get you out of a lot of bad situations. I also like managers that allow their pitcher to go 110-120 pitches. They use to have a 4 man rotation and it was nothing for a pitcher to go 8 or 9 innings.

    Wow I just felt really old after saying that? I wasn’t even thought of when they pitched that many innings in the 50′s and 60′s but at least I’m old enough to know about it.

  4. Terry M says:

    Movement matters.

  5. Bdubb says:

    If his slider is true swing-and-miss could the comparison be a right-handed Randy Johnson? (I don’t know though if Johnson’s fastball had movement or not but that slider was nasty)

    I got to give the kid some kudos. To be able to hit 99mph and not always go for strikeouts is pretty impressive for a young player. It shows a real maturity

  6. RobertoForever says:

    More good discussion material, Travis. Are you tweeting the links to your BuccoBlog? You should. Maybe not 3 or 4 times a day, but at least once. Would love to be able to retweet it.

    With respect to his high percent of FB’s, I agree with Nate83. If the reigning MVP & World Series Champs can’t hit it, keep throwing it. And Nate had another great point. Wasn’t Martin calling those pitches? I sure trust him to call a good game.

    Wow, it sure is great to debate percent of pitches in a win. Another great step forward for the Buccos. #ThisYearIsDifferent

    Keep these great topics and insights coming. Starting some great convos here and among my friends.

  7. Jim S. says:

    Nate83, you hit it exactly. If he holds back some pitches each start, he’ll be like a new pitcher – another nasty version of himself – each time out for awhile.

  8. Jim S. says:

    JohnS:

    I think it varies by pitcher. Some guys simply don’t have the stuff to put people away, so they have to pitch to contact. They try to avoid hard contact as much as possible by keeping the ball down, changing speeds, moving it around and hitting their spots with pinpoint accuracy. When they are not on their game on a particular day, they get hammered. Greg Maddux was the master at this because he avoided getting hammered almost every day.

    I think Cole’s perspective on this is somewhat unique in that he knows he could get more whiffs if that were his goal. But, in his mind, he probably does not have the accuracy to get a lot of 3 & 4 pitch whiffs right now. And, he doesn’t want 7-pitch whiffs. He also knows his stuff, especially his fastball, is so strong that if he gets the ball across the plate at the knees, a large majority of the hitters in the league will either ground out early in the count or hope to get a single. I think he knows it will be hard to score off him that way, and he will also have a lot of 10-12 pitch innings. He even had a few sub-10 pitch innings on Tuesday.

    As Cole’s secondary pitches get better, I think he’ll look to wipe guys out quickly. Not striking out a batter an inning right now is a conscious choice by Cole, I think.

  9. Travis Sawchik says:

    Nate,

    Russell Martin, the staff, and the starting pitchers formulate a game plan before each game so the high fastball useage was pre-determined.

    Cole wanted to throw a high percentage of fastballs because that’s what he was comfortable with. The number might have increased because of the score or swings the Giants were taking but it was going to be 2/3 or more of his offerings.

    And, yes, Hart’s go-to line is “this is what they look like” and Cole, physically, is definitely what stud RHPs look like.

  10. Travis Sawchik says:

    Ideally you want Curt Schilling in his prime: three-pitch strikeouts. But how many guys can really do that? Cole’s approach to pitching is really interesting. A guy who can touch 99 mph but he’s not interested in Ks.

  11. Travis Sawchik says:

    +1

  12. Travis Sawchik says:

    Cole’s approach is really unusual for a young pitcher, interesting, and refreshing. He’s coming after bats, he’s not worried about trying to miss them

  13. [...] but there’s a method to the 22-year-old righty’s madness. Cole has focused on efficiency, getting outs via contact early in counts, and the approach is working. He’s averaging just [...]

  14. [...] league readiness, but there’s a method to the 22-year-old righty’s madness. Cole has focused on efficiency, getting outs via contact early in counts, and the approach is working. He’s averaging just 3.45 [...]

  15. [...] league readiness, but there’s a method to the 22-year-old righty’s madness. Cole has focused on efficiency, getting outs via contact early in counts, and the approach is working. He’s averaging just 3.45 [...]

 
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