Before Nick Franklin and Joey Terdoslavich launched homeruns off the top pick in the 2011 amateur draft, I was already skeptical of the hard throwing Gerrit Cole. After the 2011 Arizona Fall League showcase, memories of Paul Wilson went through my mind. Then during the 2012 futures game Jae-Hoon Ha confirmed my doubts with yet another televised homerun off Cole. Ignoring the sample size, my skepticism was starting to take over my perception of Cole.
In the process of completing a top-twelve prospect list for the Pirates, I took a closer look at Gerrit Cole’s 2012 campaign and decided that I ought to watch some of his 2012 starts to get a better sense of the 6’4” righty. When I embarked on this effort I did not realize that a writer at Baseball Prospectus was just two days shy of publishing a detailed analysis of Cole’s mechanics. Instead of covering the same ground, I will focus on the repertoire, results, and makeup. After watching 23.1 innings of Gerrit Cole pitching, my understanding of the hurler matured.
The Toledo Mud Hens welcomed Cole to the International League on September 1, 2012, by smacking four hits in the first inning and another in the second. After hanging a few early on, Cole reestablished his dominant slider in the third and fourth innings and tallied a total of seven strikeouts in six innings of work. Although not particularly impressed by his start against the Hens, I wanted to see what he did in some of his earlier Eastern League outings.
His final start in the Eastern League was also the first time Cole got anyone out after the sixth inning in his minor league career. While Cole technically permitted the Cleveland Indians’ AA affiliate to collect six hits and six walks, the actual offensive output was less impressive. Four of the hits allowed by Cole were of the bunt, swinging bunt, pop-up, and bloop shot variety. The two solid hits he allowed were both singles. The pitch that stood out the most from his game against the Akron Aeros was his two-seam fastball. In the second inning, Cole threw three straight to blow past prospect Jesus Aguilar. He used the arm side run on this pitch effectively against righties. The tilt is not extreme, but at an elevated velocity it seemed very effective.
In two August starts against the Trenton Thunder, Gerrit Cole worked through uncomfortable weather and more or less dominated the opposition. Cole again fell victim to first inning struggles on August 22 in Jersey, but settled down and minimized the damage without relying on the strikeout. Consistent with his 2012 groundball rate of almost 50%, Cole induced four straight groundouts between the third and fourth innings of both of these August starts. Typical for his stint in AA, hitters were unable to muster much power off Cole.
The most eye-opening work that I observed from Gerrrit Cole was during his June 20 AA debut against the New Britain Rock Cats. During this start I saw Cole turn into a dynamic pitcher with a greater pitch portfolio than I had imagined. On multiple occasions Cole flashed a deceptive change-up with great arm side tumbling action, that the Altoona announcer guessed was either a slider or a slurve. (When watching milb.tv, beware: minor league announcers often have a very poor grasp of pitch recognition). Before the fifth inning got underway, the game was stopped due to a problem with the stadium lights and Cole had an extended interruption to his start. Nevertheless, he came out in the fifth inning and maintained his composure. During this last inning of work against the Rock Cats I saw Cole finally unleash a true curve that completely fooled the batter for a called strike three. I hadn’t seen a true recognizable curve from Cole in the prior 22 innings of work. The speed differential along with the significant break makes his curve a potentially great alternative to go with his hard slider.
Until Cole is able to thrive against upper echelon lineups, memories of the AFL showcase and the all-star futures game will continue to lurk. In 1995, Paul Wilson, the top pick in the 1994 draft, statistically dominated the upper minors with 194 strikeouts and a 2.41era over 186+ innings. The second highest ranked prospect entering the 1996 season, Wilson had a nightmarish major league debut in Flushing that year and was barely heard from again. If Cole can continue to develop all aspects of his repertoire to go along with his established fastball and slider, he could become an ace or upper echelon two. Having seen the way Cole did it for Altoona, it’s easier to visualize him doing it in Pittsburgh.