SOUTH HILLS – Although the Pirates don’t believe Gerrit Cole has damage to his right ulnar ligament, although his initial MRI reportedly did not show any damage, we’ll have to wait and learn the results of the second opinion.
The elbow discomfort could explain his spotty fastball command and lessened effectiveness – and movement – on his slider.
The issue marks Cole’s third injury of the season (ribs, triceps and now elbow) and fifth issue since 2014. In 2014, Cole had shoulder and back muscle strains.
The biggest difference between the Cole of 2015 and the Cole of 2016 is health. It was full health last season that allowed Cole to stay on the mound repeat his delivery and execute pitches.
But despite Cole not pitching as well as he did last season, despite the frustration Cole has caused a fan base which expects great things from the righty (and no one expects greater things from Cole than Cole himself) it’s important to note this: Cole has been the Pirates’ best starting pitcher this year.
Cole leads the staff in wins above replacement (2.7), fielding independent pitching (3.19 … Jameson Taillon is 3.71) and is second to Jeff Locke in innings pitched 114.
Yes, Taillon and even Chad Kuhl have been better than Cole since their call-ups, but they still have a small sample of major league experience and have only been up in the majors for a partial season. Even if you’d rather see Taillon start a hypothetical wild card game, Cole is still an important part of the top of the rotation.
The Pirates can’t afford to be without the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft for much time.
The Pirates have closed their wild-card deficit to a 1/2 game entering a critical series in Chicago, but without Cole – who has had success against the Cubs – the Pirates will now throw rookies in Steven Brault and Kuhl in the series, and finish with Ryan Vogelsong.
If Cole is not healthy down the stretch that’s a problem.
And if he can’t stay healthy going forward that’s a bigger problem.
Is the sore elbow a warning sign?
The difference with this injury for Cole is it’s really the first one that has the potential to be a season-ender, with year-plus of rehab.
And the trouble with building around any young arm, especially a high-velocity, fastball-dependent like Cole is the high risk of injury. Earlier this year the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit conducted a study on MLB pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery:
“When the percentage of pitches thrown was evaluated, UCL reconstructed pitchers pitch significantly more fastballs than controls (46.7% vs. 39.4%, P = .035). This correlated to a 2% increase in risk for UCL injury for every 1% increase in fastballs thrown. Pitching more than 48% fastballs was a significant predictor of UCL injury, because pitchers over this threshold required reconstruction (P = .006).”
In summary: The more fastballs you throw as a pitcher, the more susceptible you are to Tommy John surgery.
Cole has thrown his fastball on 66.6 percent of his offerings for this season, and 66.5 percent for his career.
Only four other pitchers to throw at least 100 innings this season have leaned on a four-seam fastball more than Cole this season:
- Pitcher Four-seam %
- Archie Bradley 70.1
- Adam Conely 63.5
- Kevin Gausman 61.1
- Junior Guerra 60.3
- Gerrit Cole 60.0
There is the idea that hard-throwing pitchers are more susceptible to TJ. So then a hard-throwing, fastball-dominant pitcher is even more susceptible. The study suggests Cole is a future candidate for elbow surgery.
Even if the Pirates and Cole dodge a bullet with this injury, they might not be so fortunate next season or the year ofter.
While Cole adopted a more stringent, between-start regimen after his 2014 injuries, he might need to make more changes in 2017 beyond. He might have to throw his fastball less often and throw his changeup or another off-speed pitch more frequently. Other than adopting a knuckle-curve he picked up from A.J. Burnett as a rookie, Cole hasn’t done much to change his pitch mix. That perhaps must be the the next adjustment.
Of course, maybe Cole will defy the odds and never need TJ. Maybe because he did not throw too much as amateur, maybe because his mechanics are clean, maybe as he works on better pitching contact and avoiding extended at-bats, he will avoid major injury.
But in assessing risk, Cole, like all pitchers, carries plenty.
THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS
>>Kuhl has been much, much better in his second exposure to the majors. He’s looked like a different pitcher in keeping in his 93 mph sinker down in the zone. I wrote about the draft-and-development success story that is Kuhl for Sunday’s Trib. One big reason the Pirates had confidence in taking Kuhl out of the Delaware program in 2013? Unlike many prospects it today’s pre-draft process, Kuhl was open.
Said the signing scout of record Brian Selman:
“In the amateur world, you are betting on human beings. Naturally, there is huge margin for error. … Chad was unique. We had had a lot of access. We didn’t need too many external sources. We could just talk directly with Chad. That’s a very rare thing in amateur scouting these days.”
The Pirates learned of Kuhl’s humility and self-belief leading up to the draft, traits that have been so important to him and his development.
>>Why is humility important? In essence, it allows a player to be more open to instruction. Kuhl improved his body, delivery and added the two-seamer in the Pirates system. Taillon also is able to self-evaluate. If Taillon didn’t have humility before his two years missed due to injury, he certainly has it now. Taillon, at the suggestion of the Pirates’ management and coaching staffs, added the two-seasm fastball this year and it’s already a plus pitch.
>>Weekly Andrew McCutchen update: McCutchen had a good series in Milwaukee, and August continued to be his best month of the season. A true turnaround? We’ll see. The plate discipline does continue to be in a better place.
(McCutchen’s average exit velocity hasn’t shown any consistent improvement … and is below his 2015 levels)
>>One other troubling number this season: McCutchen’s rate of pulled groundball is up (71 percent) from his (61 percent career average)
>>Josh Bell is an inspired choice to hit near the top of a lineup.
His plate discipline has translated thus far from the minors. His swinging strike rate (6.1 percent) is Jose Altuve-like, and his 21 percent out-of-zone swing rate is well below the MLB average (which is really good). Small sample, yes. But it’s the same process he had in the minors. Even if the game power takes some time to develop, Bell should add value with his eye and contact ability.
>>Ivan Nova is probably not J.A. Happ 2.0.
Neal Huntington has already said he’s likely gone in free agency, but would a strong final month compel the Pirates to make a multi-year offer? The Pirates could use a veteran presence in their 2017 rotation.
>>While the Pirates took care of business in Milwaukee, these were the types of series they were supposed to take advantage of with the game’s softest second-half schedule. The Cubs will be tough. And an important 10-game homestand follows.
STAT OF THE WEEK: -9
Jordy Mercer’s defensive runs saved this season, which ranks 22nd among shortstops. (Mercer produced +9 DRS in 2014 and 0 in 2015). His hands are sure, but the metrics have him getting to fewer balls in play.
HE SAID IT
“I think (Mercer) is a Gold Glove shortstop. I get to see him every day. Sometimes, the Gold Glove is attached to the bat. He’s made progress there this year. All I know is, if (Gold Glove voters) got to see him every day, they’d love him as much as we do.”
– Clint Hurdle on Mercer’s shore hands an .986 fielding percentage.
HE SAID IT II
“I had this belief in myself. That’s all me and my family ever wanted was a shot. I got my shot.”
Looking for a new show? Check out Netflix’s bloodline (recommended by Jameson Taillon).