Sunday, June 16, 2013

Gerrit Cole: Where are the Strikeouts?

Through 12IP, Gerrit Cole has only recorded three outs via punchout.  Considering the confirmed importance of strikeouts - batters who never put a ball in play only reach base in the most rare of circumstances - this could be alarming considering the expectations surrounding Cole.  The former first overall pick is supposed to come into his own quickly and anchor the Pirates as the best starter to pitch in the steel city in decades, if not possibly ever.  A scouting reports suggests Cole could meet these expectations.  His stuff is tremendous and he pitched well in 2012, but in 2013 Cole's numbers in AAA were less than inspiring.  To date in AAA this year, Cole had only struck out 47 batters in 68 innings compared to 28 walks prior to being called up.

As outlined earlier, Cole's strikeout numbers haven't picked up with the move to the highest stage in baseball.  A strikeout ever fourth inning, calculating out to a K/9 of 2.25 is frankly, terrible.  The major league sample size is miniscule at this point, but with the way Cole had trouble striking out batters in AAA, it's safe to say he hasn't totally assuaged any concerns about his K rate so far this year.

However, there is a narrative to be examined by digging deeper in the stats.  Cole has an electric fastball.  It can reach triple digits and thus far in the major leagues, Cole has maxed out the pitch at 99.4 miles per hour.  Over 2 games, Cole's heater has averaged 96.1 miles per hour.  Without directly comparing them, I can guarantee that those numbers are excellent.  The pitch has earned 80 grades, and even accounting for the negative criticisms about the pitch's lack of movement and deception, it is a plus-plus offering.

Cole has thrown that fastball nearly 80% of the time.  That's an extremely high use of the fastball.  4 out of 5 pitches Cole has thrown has been a fastball.  Throwing that many fastballs isn't going to lead to many strikeouts.  However, it has lead to something else Cole has done thus far, which has been a very good signal of future success.  He has yet to walk a batter in 12 innings after walking over 3 per 9 innings in the minors so far this year.

When Cole begins to use his offspeed pitches - he's only thrown his changeup 3.7% of the time and it's a true strikeout pitch; the same can be said about his slider, which he either hasn't used, or he's only used 17% of the time, depending on reports - the strikeouts will most likely come.  With his stuff, they could come at exceptional levels.  Either way, exceptional or simply solid, Cole will be able to complement his strikeout rate with a great walk rate.  One way to do that, which is how Cole has done it thus far, is to just rely on his fastball.

The question is, will that work.  The early returns suggest yes.  Cole has only thrown 64 fastball's to date, which is a small sample size, but it's not entirely meaningless and it's what we have to work with.  Thus far, Cole's swinging strike rate on his fastball is 10.9%.  For comparison, that's better than every pitch I could fathom to have a better rate than Cole except for two.  Matt Harvey and Yu Darvish, and those two pitchers barely beat out Cole.

My conclusion is that Cole has shown an exceptional fastball thus far in the major leagues.  It's good enough that he can have solid success - even without the many strikeouts, the fact that he hasn't walked a better makes his success thus far fairly legitimate - while relying on his heater to an extreme degree.  That gives Cole a foundation to rely on.  He can go to his fastball and simply throw it in the zone and expect a high amount of swings and misses.  That allows him to limit the damage of walks by not issuing them while not getting punished for pitching in the zone when required.  From that foundation, Cole can add his secondaries, secondaries with immense potential, and start punching out batters via the strikeout, all while keeping that walk rate low.  That's the path to being an ace, something the Pirates expected when drafting Cole first overall in 2011.

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