PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – If you remember back to Gerrit Cole‘s first few months in the big leagues he was often a one-pitch pitcher. In his first few starts, 80 percent of his pitches were fastballs. For the season, two thirds of his offerings were fastballs. Now, it was a heckuva one pitch – a 96 mph fastball – velocity by a starter that perhaps only Kansas City’s Yorando Ventura can exceed.
But no matter how hard you throw, it’s tough to miss bats with four-seam fastballs. And Cole was having a difficult time missing bats until he found velocity separation with a curveball in September. Then he took off. He was so good he earned a Game 5 start in the NLDS as a rookie.
Cole’s pitch usage for the 2013 season:
What’s interesting is Cole’s second best pitch, his strikeout pitch, coming out of UCLA was his slider. It was 90-mph with tilt, filth that buckled knees and made scouts swoon. But that pitch wasn’t great in 2013. In fact, Cole essentially shelved it in September in favor of the curveball. You’re probably familiar with his strikeout rate:
June: 4.07 (Yikes!)
Sept: 10.97 (Watch your back, Kershaw .. and you, too, Jose Fernandez)
See, it’s off-speed pitches that miss bats.
Cole found one in September and he might might be rediscovering another this spring as I wrote about in today’s Trib.
(Yes, Pirates fans, now is the time to be excited).
One issue with Cole last year from April through August is that everything he threw was too hard. I swear I saw him throw a 94 mph changeup at the Angles on the night he threw eight pitches 100+ mph last June, pumped up to throw before friends and family for the first time as a major leaguer in his native California. Still, the everything-too-hard-theory doesn’t completely explain the lack of Ks. Randy Johnson threw two pitches including a 90 mph slider and struck out 300+ per season. No, I think Cole’s slider also lacked proper shape, proper break in 2013. Too often it seemed flat.
That wasn’t the case at UCLA, though. It was a monster pitch at times. And perhaps we saw it returning to that form Wednesday.
Two of Cole’s three strikeouts came via the slider. He induced professional hitter Josh Willingham to swing and miss at the pitch twice. Small samples are dangerous in March. But one thing I think I’ve seen so far is better shape, better command of Cole’s offspeed stuff.
“I threw some good ones to Willingham,” Cole said of the slider. “The slider shape was good. I was trying to play a little bit with the shape of the slider (Wednesday). I left it up a couple times. … I’m trying make myself make those adjustments that I was able to make later in the year last year.”
Imagine what Cole can be if he has the 96 mph fastball and two plus breaking balls with different shapes and speeds? Oh, he also throws a two-seam fastball and a changeup. You’re looking at a potential five-pitch mix and perhaps three plus pitches and above average command.
Cole found a different level with the arrival of the curveball last season. If the slider comes, he can reach another level in 2014: that of a Cy Young contender.