Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/25/14
The nation will remember Stephen Strasburg‘s major-league debut. Strasburg started his first game on June 8, 2010. That’s not the part people will remember. People will remember the overwhelming dominance, the standing ovations, the 14 strikeouts in seven innings with not one single walk. Gerrit Cole, as Strasburg was, is a top flame-throwing pitching prospect, and Cole just made his own major-league debut in the month of June. Cole’s not as hyped, and his outing didn’t match up to Strasburg’s, in terms of baseball-y sex appeal. But Cole needed just 81 pitches to pitch to 27 batters, and the Giants had only one run on the board when Cole walked off the mound to an ovation of his own. With the lofty expectations placed on top prospects, it’s easy for them to disappoint, but one start in, Gerrit Cole hasn’t disappointed. I thought we might take a quick look at Cole’s Tuesday night command. Or, at his command over a selection of pitches, like I’ve done with Mariano Rivera and with Carlos Marmol in the past. This isn’t for any diagnostic purposes; this is just for fun, and so we can look at Cole in a way that maybe you didn’t, yesterday, if you were watching. As a prospect, Cole had a few question marks, those being his command and his secondary stuff behind the impressive heater. In Triple-A he threw 63% strikes, pretty much right on the league average. Tuesday, he threw 59 strikes out of 81 pitches, with 19 first-pitch strikes to 27 batters. In that regard it was a surprising outing. In that Cole was effective, it was not. As Cole was a power guy with occasional command problems, one might’ve expected both strikeouts and walks and a bit of inefficiency. He was impressively economical, with not one walk and only two strikeouts. Granted, you’d prefer more than two strikeouts, given what we know about pitching, but Cole did miss eight bats, and the strikeouts themselves were remarkable. We see good hitters going down against big heat and big break: Cole might’ve just been searching for efficiency in his first-ever go. Nearly eight of ten pitches were fastballs. All but one first pitch were fastballs, with a lonely slider being the one exception. Cole kept himself in and around the zone, and he didn’t give the Giants much of an opportunity to get his pitch count up. Maybe he tired by the end, or maybe he didn’t, but Cole had a good outing and a different sort of outing from what one could’ve assumed. I’ve decided to look closely at Cole’s fifth inning, in which he threw ten pitches to three batters. There wasn’t a specific reason to choose the fifth, but ten seems like a good number, and by the top of the fifth Cole should’ve been settled in, leaving behind any possible early-inning jitters. Also, Cole shouldn’t yet have become fatigued. What you’re going to see are ten screenshots, with pitch location, and with the red dot designating intended pitch location as determined by the location of Russell Martin‘s glove. As usual, we can’t say for sure that Martin was setting a target, but we can assume as much. Cole didn’t pitch with any runners on in the fifth so Martin wouldn’t have been trying to trick anybody. Once more, there’s the necessary caveat that this might not be representative of Gerrit Cole. It’s one inning in one game, and we don’t know what Cole is usually like, and we don’t know what the average pitcher is usually like. This is just the third such experiment, and I’m not going to determine anything based on the below, but exploration can be fun for exploration’s sake. Gerrit Cole’s top of the fifth from his major-league debut against the Giants on June 11: Fastball, bit of a miss. Instead of throwing at the thigh on the inside edge, Cole threw at the belt over the middle. On the other hand, he was facing Tim Lincecum. And Cole has the kind of fastball where he can get away with some mistakes. Fastball, bit of a miss again but better. Cole threw over the middle of the plate, but this time it was at the knees, which is a better place to miss. And, again, Lincecum. Lincecum sucks, at this. Fastball, pretty good. Cole didn’t retire Lincecum on three pitches, as this was taken for a ball, but it was the right kind of ball and Cole’s pitch had the right idea. It missed just a little too inside. Slider, miss. It didn’t miss the zone by much, as Cole nearly froze Lincecum on the back door, but that wasn’t the intent and the pitch seemed to slip just a little out of Cole’s hand. That’s missing location by about a plate width. Fastball, not bad. Again, it’s a miss — Cole was looking to throw low and in, and instead he threw low and away. But he missed in a perfect spot, where the pitch might’ve been called a strike, but also where Lincecum couldn’t have done anything with it. This turned into a harmless grounder. On Gameday, you’d think, “hey, great pitch.” It was a great pitch. It just wasn’t the planned great pitch, which is different. Fastball, basically perfect. It was taken for a borderline ball, but Cole really couldn’t have thrown this pitch better. That’s 96 miles per hour on the hands. Fastball, good. Cole had to throw a strike, behind in the count, but he threw a quality strike over the outer half. Terrific execution. Slider, acceptable. Ideally, Cole would’ve caught the corner, and he only barely missed it, but this wound up an easy first-pitch ball. It’s a good place to miss with a slider against a right-handed hitter, even if that hitter is the unstrikeoutable Marco Scutaro. Fastball, perfect, lol good luck Slider, bit of a miss. Instead of an outside slider, this was an inside slider, but it was at the right elevation and it was on the edge. If you can’t pitch to the intended edge, you could do worse than pitching to the opposite one, since edges are edges. This pitch was more pullable, and indeed it was pulled, but it was pulled for an out. There are ten Gerrit Cole pitches to the Giants, five of them to a pitcher. The three sliders missed, but they didn’t miss miserably. The fastballs to the non-pitcher were just about perfect, which might’ve been a coincidence, or which might’ve been evidence of Cole bearing down against more threatening bats. Cole doesn’t have to worry so much about command against Tim Lincecum, not that that excuses missed locations. I wonder if location is different against pitchers and non-pitchers. That is, I wonder if the pitchers on the mound kind of let up. I don’t know and that’s not what we’re dealing with here! I told you before we weren’t going to determine anything based on these ten pitches. Marc Hulet wrote before the year that Cole’s control was ahead of his command. Cole’s control was good Tuesday night, as evidenced by all the strikes. His command wasn’t perfect, but nobody’s is, and Cole’s stuff comes with a built-in margin of error. It’s going to be interesting to see how Cole proceeds — whether he keeps pounding the zone, or whether he pitches around it and generates more strikeouts. With the strikeouts would come the walks, but with the walks would come the strikeouts. By results, Tuesday isn’t what I expected of Gerrit Cole. I’ll be eager to see if this keeps up, and I’m ecstatic that I’m going to have a chance to find out.
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