San Francisco Giants v Pittsburgh Pirates

Gerrit Cole started for the Pittsburgh Pirates last night at PNC Park. It went swimmingly, as the Pirates beat the San Francisco Giants 8-2 in front of a very enthusiastic crowd. Cole, as you may know, was the first overall pick in the 2011 draft out of UCLA. The Pirates took their time and set the stage for their phenom’s debut.

Cole pitched very well in his first big league start. He showed the big fastball that let him go 1.1 plus the solid slider/curve to keep hitters off balance. His final line was 6.1 innings pitched, seven hits, two earned runs, two runs,two strikeouts and no walks. Not a bad way to kick off a big league career.

This was my first time watching Cole pitch, so obviously the fastball jumped out at me. Such a big pitch and, after some struggles locating it in the early innings, Cole really settled down and leaned on the heavy fastball which repeatedly lit the radar gun near 100 miles per hour. Cole averaged 97 mph with his heater last night, a pitch he threw 64 times out of 81 total pitches.

Most impressive was Cole’s ability to locate the fastball down and away against right-handed hitters. It can be a challenge for power pitchers to command that pitch in that spot. When they’re able to dot it on that location, it is just a devastating offering – especially in the upper nineties.

Cole and catcher Russell Martin threw his fastball down and on the outer half nine times last night and all nines times the Giants took it, seven for strikes. Again: there isn’t much then can do with it in that spot. A very good hitter might slash it the other way but most will simply roll over for an easy ground out.

The Pirates rookie managed eight swinging strikes out of his 81 pitches – seven with his fastball and one with his slider. Buster Posey whiffed on the slider while all the fastball whiffs came against left-handed batters.

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Seven swinging strike on fastballs up in the zone. This, in one way, points to a bright future for Cole in my mind. He can rear back and throw the fastball right past hitters with his plus velocity while spotting that same pitch with precision on the black – setting up his breaking stuff (should he choose to deploy it).

The breaking stuff looked nice on TV but wasn’t the wipe out offering many hoped/expected. The majority of his sliders/curves (there is some debate as to what Cole actually throws now. His usual slider appears to have given way for a curve, according to the man himself) missed the zone and were simply taken for balls.

The pitch f/x alogrithm credits Cole with three changeups but only one actually looked that way to mine eyes, watching on TV. He threw a decent change to Buster Posey in his first at bat, getting the reigning MVP to fly out to center. The other pitches classified as changeups didn’t appear to have the same grip or movement but it’s almost impossible to say for sure.

When the Giants did manage to get to the Pirates presumptive ace, it was on fastballs catching too much plate, by and large. Pinch hitter Tony Abreu stung a double into the corner on a 98 mph fastball inside and up, a minor miracle if ever I’ve seen one. Cole coaxed 11 grounders, many of the weak variety as his fastball blasted the bottom and inside quadrants of the zone.

All in all, an impressive performance. I would say he needs to make better use of his breaking stuff but maybe he doesn’t? His fastball has carried him this far, hasn’t it? If only baseball were so simple.

As Howard Megdal points out at Sports on Earth, strikeouts are kind of important, despite an apparent organizational ethos eschewing them. Cole can survive on his fastball alone, but for how long? More importantly – why survive when you can thrive? Making better use of his breaking pitches is the first step towards thriving for the Pirates. For now, enjoy a nice debut pitching for a winning team, Gerrit. It won’t always be like this.