The obvious headliner at Pirates instructs was 2011 #1 overall pick Gerrit Cole. Cole has been on prospect radars for some time, as he went unsigned out of a southern California high school in 2008 when the Yankees made him a 1st rounder despite being an obviously tough sign. Negotiations never got started and Cole decided he wanted to go to UCLA, where he cleaned up his delivery and command while adding a plus changeup to his power fastball-slider repertoire. Three years after turning down a potential multi-million dollar bonus, Cole signed with the Pirates for $8 million.
Cole’s professional career has been mostly ho-hum. No arm injuries or real struggles while also not quite dominating the way his stuff probably should. He signed late in 2011 then had a successful if short stop in the Arizona Fall League followed by a debut season starting in Hi-A and ending in AAA with basically the same numbers at all four stops: a K/9 in the 9’s and BB/9 around 3. A notable event happened in late June when Cole was hit in the face with a liner while with AA Altoona, but he returned later in the season and looked fine in instructs.
Those numbers will obviously play in the big leagues but there’s math that we do looking at minor league numbers, expecting some regression at each level. One thing to keep in mind is the Pirates organizational development plan for pitchers. They heavily stress fastball command and in the first full season in the system. Pitchers are instructed to throw primarily fastballs, usually over 70% per game. In instructs, Cole threw one off-speed pitch in two innings and in a game I saw in Hi-A earlier in the year, I counted 7 off-speed pitches in a full outing. That will obviously affect Cole’s feel for these off-speed offerings and make projecting him a little more difficult.
Back in May, Cole was sitting 94-97 and hitting 98 mph with his four-seamer that had some run to his arm side. He would also occasionally throw a sinker at 91-93 with heavier movement that could be a useful weapon going forward. His slider was nasty even in limited use, ranging from 86-91 mph with sharp, late break that darts from one end of the plate to the other with ¾ tilt. He wasn’t very consistent with the tilt for obvious reasons but one of his plus-plus sliders actually looked almost identical to Red Sox prospect Matt Barnes’ plus curveball, except Cole’s slider was 90 mph.
Cole threw one curveball at 81 that he should scrap, just a slower version of the slider and only threw two changeups in the low 80’s. The changeups showed plus potential, turning over with fade and bottom but the changeup is a pitch that comes with feel, something Cole can’t have throwing it twice a game. His command was fine for the level, but would waver more than you’d like, usually missing up in the zone.
More recently in instructs, Cole only went two innings but put up the big numbers on the radar gun you hope to see. He was 96-99 in the first inning, hitting a 101 and then sitting a paltry 96-98 in the second inning. Cole got two strikeouts, two groundballs, elevated with purpose and his fastball had life down in the zone and cut to his glove side. He threw one slider, a plus-plus yakker at 88 mph, but more importantly he subtly improved his delivery.
Cole has a big, sturdy frame at 6’4, 220 pounds that looks like it was designed to absorb thousands of innings. He creates velocity by breaking his hands late, loading his hips and front shoulder before exploding to the plate with a lightning quick arm. It’s amazing how good Cole is at keeping his arm in sync with his body. You’ll notice that most of the time when I write about pitchers with mid 90’s velocity I mention how their arm is late to catch up with their body and it drags behind, causing control issues and heightening injury risk. This is because most people aren’t gifted with a mid 90’s fastball but many more can throw in the low 90’s and so they do things to juice their velo.
Cole has a true 80 fastball but he doesn’t cheat at all—his arm starts exploding when his hips do, he takes a direct path to home plate, his elbow stays low relative to his shoulder at foot plant, he has only slight head movement and good posture at release, a solid front side, an arm that works well out front all with good enough balance to not spin off to first base. Much the same way that I wrote about Marcus Stroman as a genetic freak that I want to bet on because he keeps beating expectations, I don’t want to bet against a guy with clean mechanics and the level of genetic gifting of Cole.
Back to the subtle improvement Cole made late in the season. One reason I think his results weren’t matching his stuff beyond pitch usage was that his aggressive stride would often be too long, causing him to overextend his front leg and throw against that leg rather than over it. In instructs, Cole’s stride was shorter and he consistently got over his front leg. This allows him to control his body better and have an easier time getting the ball down in the zone. His power fastball with lively movement should be a groundball machine and break bats left and right, which I think he’ll be doing more in 2013. Cole also appeared to raise his arm slot slightly to a consistent high ¾. In the full outing from May, I noticed his slot would lower occasionally to a ¾ slot, a sign of fatigue that leads to less command that could also just be a byproduct of a lack of focus or a slight posture/balance change.
There are some other things scouts don’t like about Cole, such as his stiff, un-flexed throwing arm in the beginning of his arm stroke and his no better than average deception. Neither of these really bothers me as his arm gets into a much better position by the time it starts accelerating and throwing 100 mph with a 70 slider tends to keep hitters on their toes as much as a deceptive delivery can. Cole turns 23 at the end of the upcoming season, so everything is pointing at a big league debut sometime in 2013 as he continues progressing toward his ceiling of a true #1 starter.