SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – We didn’t see Gerrit Cole’s slider, and really his changeup, until Friday night.
The slider, his second best pitch according to most scouts, had been on the shelf his first two Major League starts. Cole told me after his second start that he simply didn’t have a good feel for the pitch. Clint Hurdle said the Pirates had taken no pitches away from Cole.
Whether it was feel, or shelving the pitching to focus on fastball command, we saw the pitch Friday night and it was what scouts said it could be: a diving, darting low 90s offering.
Here’s highlight from the start if you couldn’t hold up for the West Coast start time
Cole struck out Mike Trout on a 91 mph slider.
He struck out Albert Pujols on a low 90s slider.
You might have heard of those guys.
When you get that pair swinging and missing it’s telling of a pitches quality.
I was more interested in Cole’s changeup, which he has better command of Friday night: he struck out Pujols with a 93 mph changeup in the first inning - yes, 93 – and struck out Alberto Callaspo with what was a apparently a 95 changeup … after a 101 mph fastball, the fastest pitch to date of his Major League career. Brooks Baseball had the pitch at 101.88 mph.
I think Cole was a little amped up to be pitching near his hometown before 50+ friends, family and former UCLA teammates. I don’t think we’ll see that velocity on a consistent basis. Still, Cole is averaging 96.4 mph with his fastball, which is faster than any other MLB starting pitcher.
So, look, if Gerrit Cole continues to average that type of velocity and can mix in any type of offspeed pitch with movement he’s going to be effective. The strikeouts are going to come.
There’s been two issues though: he’s struggled with command of his offspeed pitches – and – he doesn’t always have much of a velocity difference between his fastball and offspeed pitches, allowing hitters to time him up. That has been an issue since his UCLA days. A 93-mph changeup is amazing, but it would be better if if it was a 88-90 mph changeup.
Still, what we saw from Cole Friday is that when he has command of a diving changeup and slider in addition to his fastball he can be a top-of-the-rotation arm. He can limit a lineup with Trout and Pujols included to two hits and no runs through six innings.
Cole isn’t a finished product. He’s going to have rough spells and patches of development.
I thought he struggled to stay in the moment after allowing a home run to Pujols in the seventh on Friday as he immediately walked the next batter – the first walk issues in his 18 innings of work. That’s telling of Cole’s improved fastball command, but also his struggle to move beyond a mistake.
It shows there’s still room to grow. We’re still very early on in his story.