PNC PARK – Remember when Gerrit Verlander’s results, I mean, Gerrit Cole‘s results didn’t match his stuff?
Remember when Cole was striking out only six batters per nine innings in Triple-A this spring? Remember when he struck out a well-below-average 4.1 batters per nine innings this June? Despite the fastest average fastball velocity in the majors, he wasn’t missing bats.
Remember when Cole was at UCLA and scouts wondered why he didn’t deliver the same results as teammate Trevor Bauer despite superior stuff and strength?
The questions seem like a long time ago after Cole struck out a career-best 12 in a key win over the Padres on Thursday.
Where should Cole fit in a potential playoff rotation?
Despite pitching in the middle of a pennant chase as a 23-year-old rookie, despite having thrown 30 more innings than his previous season-high of 150 innings last season, Cole is getting better - a lot better – in September. This isn’t supposed to happen. It’s like a hurricane strengthening over land.
In four Sept. starts, covering 26 innings, Cole is 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA and 11.4 strikeout rate.
His strikeout rates by month:
There was some concerns around Cole’ slacking strikeout rate earlier this season. But there shouldn’t have been much if you believed in the comp Cole was often give: Justin Verlander.
Verlander’s K rate by year:
2006 : 6.00 (rookie season)
Verlander’s profile is similar to Cole’s. He was a big, hard-throwing college right-handed pitcher drafted No. 2 overall by the Tigers in 2004. Greg Smith played a role in the decision to draft Verlander just as he did with the Pirates’ in selecting Cole No. 1 overall in 2011.
(Good thing for the Pirates that this didn’t happen:)
Where would the Yankees be if ownership had allowed Damon Oppenheimer to sign Gerritt Cole out of high school?
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) September 20, 2013
Verlander only became an ace once his offspeed stuff started to play, when the curveball became more consistent, when he developed a changeup.
It took several seasons for Verlander to accomplish those tasks. Cole seems to be accomplishing them within a pennant chase as a rookie.
Said Tony Sanchez who caught Cole on Thursday and earlier this year in Triple-A:
“His off-speed pitches are so much better than what they were in Indy,” Sanchez said. “There’s a lot more life, they’re a lot tighter, he’s throwing them for more strikes.
“He had four pitches that he threw for strikes and kept them guessing. We worked the fastball to both sides of the plate, he had a slider that was tight and if it’s hard for me to pick up rotation on a slider, it’s impossible for a hitter to. They were swinging at pitches out of the zone, curveballs down in the dirt, he was speeding them up by throwing that two-seamer in there then slowing it down by throwing the changeup. Any time any pitcher has four pitches working he’s going to have a lot of success.”
The offspeed pitches and velocity differential is much improved. But it still starts with the fastball.
Cole has lost his status as the major league starter to have thrown the fastest pitch over the last five seasons – the fastest since a 102 Verlander fastball. Kansas City Royals starter Yordano Ventura threw a fastball that registered 101.9 last week according to PitchFx, bettering Cole’s 101.8 fastball from earlier this year.
Cole’s fastball sat at 94-99 mph Thursday and it was the command that has improved.
How good was the fastball?
Just ask Bud Black, the Padres manager and a former big league pitching coaching, who has one of the best managerial/pitching minds in the game.
“You almost have to sell out on the fastball at certain at-bats and hope you square it up. But he did a nice job of locating the fastball,” Black said. “He’s got a big arm, there’s no doubt about it. He wouldn’t have been taken where he was in the draft if he didn’t have it. And then enough off-speed to keep you a little honest.
“We just couldn’t get to the fastball. We knew it was coming but he located some pitches, threw down and away well, he pitched in, he pitched up, he mixed it up a little bit with the slider and a few changeups but I think today was just about the fastball.”
Cole is developing into not just a pitcher but a top-of-the rotation starter. The ceiling is Verlander. Does he get there? We’ll have to watch it play out.
But you have to like what you’ve seen in September and you have to like the fearless attitude we’ve seen throughout the season.
Said Cole yesterday: ”I try to get pissed off before I come in and (pitch) the first.”
While Clint Hurdle indicated he would lead a potential postseason rotation with veterans Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett, Cole has been the club’s best pitcher in Sept.
And it hasn’t been close.