With the Pirates set to play the St. Louis Cardinals in a Game 5 elimination contest, it's not a surprise that Clint Hurdle is choosing baseball's No. 1 overall pick just two years ago. Over his last eight regular-season starts, Cole had a 2.28 ERA, lasting at least six innings in each start while striking out over a batter per inning.
Add in another strong start in Game 2 of the series (6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 5 K) and AJ Burnett's struggles against the Cardinals, and it adds up. But just three months ago, as Cole was first getting acclimatized to the major leagues, it would have been unthinkable.
It's easy to forget that young ballplayers need time to develop. Born with the nearly superhuman abilities to throw 95-mph fastballs or crush 450-foot home runs, people can overlook that baseball is still a skill sport. We've been spoiled in recent years with phenoms like Mike Trout and Jose Fernandez immediately dominating, but that's the exception to the rule. Through his first 186 innings across parts of two seasons, Greg Maddux had 5.59 ERA. Jose Bautista had 2,000 plate appearances with five different teams before, at the age of 29, he hit 54 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays. Baseball's hard. It takes work.
And Cole was no exception. Drafted first overall in the 2011 draft, Cole was considered the top college arm with advanced stuff. But two other pitchers drafted that year jumped ahead of him, reaching the major leagues first.
His college teammate Trevor Bauer (3rd overall) joined the Diamondbacks, and Dylan Bundy (4th) pitched in two games out of the Orioles' pen last year while Cole was in the minors. But Bauer has battled with his coaches and struggled with command, pitching only 33 major league innings, and Bundy is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, Gerrit Cole will be trying to lead the Pirates to their first playoff series victory since 1979.
As a college pitcher with a plus-fastball and potential plus pitches in his slider and changeup, it was disheartening to see him not completely decimate the minor-league opposition. After moving through three levels during his first taste of the minor leagues, Cole started 2013 in AAA ranked as a top 10 major-league prospect by virtually every organization out there (save for JD Power & Associates). In 12 AAA starts before joining the Pirates in June, Cole struck out only 6.2 batters per nine innings, a number that seemed far too low to be coming from the team's fire-balling savior.
As people outside of the Pirates organization, though, we only saw part of the picture. While scouting reports told us that he had an enormous fastball and above-average off-speed offerings, when we checked the stat sheet, the numbers just weren't there. But while he was in Indianapolis, we didn't know if he was throwing 60 fastballs a game to the lower part of the plate, ttrying to refine his command, or if he was tumbling 45 changeups per start, trying to get the arm action right. While I worried about his ability to get major-league hitters out, the Pirates' coaching staff knew what they had.
When Cole was called up, he continued doing the same thing he had in AAA -- nothing seemingly changed. Through his first eight major-league starts, Cole had a respectable 3.51 ERA, but had not topped five strikeouts in an outing. His K/9 was 5.36, or, essentially Joe Saunders. While Saunders has his uses, it's hardly the type of player the fans were hoping for when the Pirates drafted Cole.
But that was ignoring how Cole was getting outs. When he first joined the Pirates, they eased him in, letting him use his fastball and sinker almost exclusively, pounding the ball down in the zone and inducing weak contact.
As batters adjusted to him and Cole got more comfortable, he changed his game as well. His sinker usage started dipping, his curve, slider, and changeup making up the difference. By September, he was throwing his off-speed pitches nearly 40 percent of the time, almost twice as often as those first two months. And as he did, his strikeouts rose as well. Unlike most pitchers who suffer at the end of the year as their innings limit nears, Cole was missing more bats. Over his last 68.2 IP, Cole struck out 71 batters. He was maturing, becoming a new pitcher right before our eyes, evolving almost as quickly as Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.
It didn't hurt that on a team of pitchers who often bat while looking like they're amnesia victims in the middle of Times Square, Cole seemed to know what he was doing at the plate. Besides collecting seven hits to lead the team's pitchers, Cole singled in the first run in Game 2 against the Cardinals, giving the Pirates an early lead and at least forcing pitchers to consider the ninth batter in the order capable of inflicting some damage.
One of the few knocks on Cole was that he lacked intensity in the minors, that he was at his best in big situations that couldn't be tested by AAA competition. He proved that when he out-dueled Yu Darvish with seven shutout innings in early September. He proved that when he beat the Cardinals in the Pirates' Game 2 victory, needing the win after being slaughtered 9-1 the day before. And because of the Pirates' careful development plan, helping guide Cole to this position, he'll have the chance to prove it one more time when he pitches for the Pirates' season on Wednesday night.
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