We kick off our 2011 South Atlantic League All-Star list with an honorable mention- in multiple ways. A.J. Cole, who played 2011 at the Washington Nationals‘ Sally League affiliate, the Hagerstown Suns, had himself some very nice peripherals in 2011 and also happens to be a top prospect I want to talk about. Cole has also since been traded to the Oakland Athletics as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade. Anyway, let’s get down to business on his stats and scouting report.
The problem with a stat like ERA and that it doesn’t tell you anywhere near the whole story on a player. Take Cole. He went 4-7 with a 4.04 ERA in 18 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 89 innings pitched, which would leave the casual fan who didn’t know his potential thinking he was a mediocre prospect. But that is simply not the case. In those 89 innings, Cole struck out 108 (a 10.9 K/9) while walking just 24 (conveniently a 2.4 BB/9) and allowing just 6 home runs (a 0.6 HR/9). His FIP was an incredible 2.58, and according to Minor League Central, his SIERA was just as impressive at 2.63. But that begs the question: if Cole was so dominant bases on his peripherals, why did he post just a 4.04 ERA?
Well first of all, there’s the defense factor. Low-A defense is nowhere near as good as major league defense, even if there are some players who could be future Gold Glovers. But then there’s the balls in play tendencies factor. Pitchers who force hitters to hit the ball on the ground are usually more successful than pitchers who let hitters hit the ball in the air because they allow fewer home runs and extra-base hits. However, flyball pitchers usually post lower BAbip’s (batting averages on balls in play) because a flyball (encompassing pop-ups) is more likely to be caught than a groundball is to be fielded and successfully thrown to 1st. Cole is a flyball pitcher as 37.8% of the batted balls he allowed were flyballs compared to the 34.6% that were groundballs. Yet bizarrely, he allowed a .341 BAbip, well above the league average of .314. The reason was that Cole allowed a lot of line drives, 23.7% of the balls hit into play against him compared to the league average of 16.7%, and that substantial difference canceled out the fact that Cole was a flyball pitcher and led to the abnormally high BAbip. But why did that happen?
Let’s head to the scouting report on Cole for a moment. Cole consistently throws in the mid-90′s with his fastball, which features late movement away from a righty batter, and he combos that with a sharp 11-to-5 curveball along with a changeup. The problem for Cole was actually his excellent control. He threw 74.7% of his pitches in the zone, well above the league average of 68.7%. You may remember back in Stephen Strasburg‘s first major league start back in 2010 when Strasburg threw a changeup at 93 MPH that was hit for a home run and the announcers remarked that the pitch would have been a good pitch except for the fact that he threw it so hard. The velocity on the pitch is what allowed it to leave the yard. That’s what happened to Cole in 2011. If a hitter can catch up to a 95 MPH fastball and make solid contact, he’ll hit the ball hard. Cole’s high line drive percentage came from the fact that on the rare occasions when hitters made solid contact on his fastball, they slammed them. Cole threw so many strikes, and hitters missed the majority of them, connecting just 46.0% of the time compared to the league average of 58.3%. But on the pitches the Cole threw out of zone, hitters swung 29.4% of the time compared to the league average of 24.6% and connected just 42.0% of the time compared to the league average of 66.4%. That high league average on contact out of the zone hints to something we have to realize: a lot of pitches out of the zone that hitters swing at are mistake pitches, hanging breaking balls or fastballs left up and just off the plate. The league outside the zone contact rate is so high because most of the pitches hitters swing at out of the strike zone are pitches they see are mistakes. Cole threw mistake-pitches also, and most of those or at least many of those got hit. But on the non-mistakes, hitters couldn’t hit anything he threw. Cole needs to mature a little bit as a pitcher and realize that fastballs thrown purposefully off the plate are just as useful as fastballs right on the corners.
Even down in the Sally, scouting reports are becoming more and more advanced and hitters have a much better idea of how pitchers’ pitches move than ever before. But location is a key factor that the hitters can’t control, and pitchers in this day and age have to take advantage of that. When you throw so many strikes, you leave the hitter with fewer indicators to look for when you deliver the ball. If a lefty batter saw Cole throw a fastball that started just off the plate, the scouting report is to try to drive the ball the other way because the ball was going to come back to the outside corner. But if Cole starts the ball another 3 inches outside, the hitter will think of that scouting report his coach told him and then come up empty because the pitch finished a couple inches outside. Cole can limit the amount of line drives hit against him by giving the hitters less opportunity to drive balls by throwing a few less strikes in the proper situations. And once he’s able to do that, his walk rate will go up a little bit, but his strikeout rate will go up even more, his homer rate will decrease, and he’ll force more weak contact, getting his groundball rate up to a reasonable level. Cole’s peripherals in 2011 showed his immense potential. And as he matures as a pitcher, he’ll make more of that potential materialize into talent as he uses his pitches the right way and uses every advantage he has to blow away hitters.