The Pirates made a bold choice when they announced Gerrit Cole as their starter for Game Five of the NLDS in St. Louis. Cole is a rookie and, as such, isn’t a Proven Playoff Performer. A.J. Burnett, the Pirates ace and nominal number one starter, is a Proven Playoff Performer. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, he is “proven” to be “mediocre” when the calender flips to October – Game Two of the 2009 World Series notwithstanding.
Cole isn’t a veteran with dozens of big league starts under his belt, but his a product of the modern baseball development pipeline. It isn’t like the old days, where a kid performed well for his high school team, blowing away future farmers and decent men’s league players. Cole attended a top baseball factory and pitched in the College World Series, pitched in countless showcase games and prospect exhibitions and the Cape Cod league and so on and so forth. He’s pitched under pressure, this isn’t new to him.
What is new is the current edition of Gerrit Cole to the St. Louis Cardinals. They saw him dominant in Game Two of this series, the vastly improved Cole from the top prospect who emerged from the minor leagues this season only to post pedestrian strikeout rates and overall results.
We kept close tabs on Gerrit Cole’s first few starts, making note of his fastball dependence as he made his way through the league the first time. The fastball is the key pitch for Cole (or any big league pitcher) but he worked in a few changeups and was yet to fully implement his slider. Cole filled the strike zone with strikes, almost to a fault.
It seemed, almost overnight, that Gerritt Cole flipped the switch. He began throwing fewer pitches in the zone, coaxing more chases swings and swing and miss from the overmatched hitters of the National League.
So what does this mean for tonight’s game against the Cardinals? My feeling (and the scouting report backs it up) is that Cole has enough command with his explosive fastball that he can be fine with it , throwing it to the corners of the strike zone against a Cardinals team not known for its patience or power. Cole’s recent history shows a willingness to throw just about any pitch in any count, so setting up his secondary offerings with this fastball approach gives him plenty of leeway.
Should he struggle to locate his fastball? Pitches – any pitches – thrown in the fat part of the strike zone against St. Louis is a recipe for line drives. Line drives by the bucketful. They will be aggressive early in the count, knowing that getting to two strikes against Cole is a recipe for disaster. But these are the Cardinals – one bad inning for a good pitcher can suddenly result in a crooked number. The Cardinals did it to A.J. Burnett in Game One and many, many others throughout the season (Matt Cain, for example.)
It’s a bold choice for Clint Hurdle and the Pirates but, all things being equal, it is probably the right one. PIrates fans can only hope he pitches well enough to remove any doubt.