Unheralded Aces: Gerrit Cole

Feature photo courtesy of boomer-44.

This is the first in a series of profiles of pitchers whose production ranks them among the best in baseball, but who haven’t received proper national recognition for their accomplishments.

By flying under the national radar for so long, Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole seems to have done something inexplicable. He’s a former No. 1 overall draft pick, but he was sandwiched between years in which Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Carlos Correa went first, all of whom have eclipsed the attention paid to Cole every step of the way. Cole hasn’t even gotten the most coverage within his own draft class, which included the likes of Jose Fernandez, George Springer, Archie Bradley, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez and Anthony Rendon, among others.

Cole has been successful in each of his first two major league seasons, going 10-7 with a 2.91 fielding independent pitching mark in his rookie year and 11-5 with a 3.23 FIP in 2014. He’s further elevated his game this year and has landed within an exclusive group of the five or ten best pitchers in the majors. So when will the fan bases outside Pittsburgh catch on and give Cole his due?

After all, Cole is 10-2 with a 1.71 ERA this season, with those 10 wins leading the majors and that ERA leading the National League, trailing only Oakland’s Sonny Gray in the MLB. His Adjusted ERA+, which adjusts his pitching outcomes based on the ballpark he plays in and standardizes the number across baseball, is 219, also the best in the NL. That’s 20 ahead of his next closest competitor in the league, current Cy Young frontrunner Max Scherzer.

Cole is averaging career-best strikeout, walk and ground ball percentages, and his batting average on balls in play indicate his early success could be sustainable. He rarely allows any baserunners, with a 1.08 WHIP and .231 batting average against. When he does let batters aboard, he is tremendous at erasing them: he induces grounders 51.9 percent of the time, which has led to 12 double plays, fourth best in the majors.

Cole achieves all this with a tremendous pitch repertoire. Known as a hard thrower while at UCLA, Cole continues to dial up the heat in the pros, with his fastball averaging the fourth-highest velocity in the majors at 95.4 mph. He is more than capable of reaching 100 mph, as seen below:

That GIF also demonstrates another aspect of Cole’s pitching that has taken a giant step forward this year: his command. The faster a pitch is, the harder it is to control, but Cole is only walking 2.04 hitters per nine innings and painting corners. Cubs rookie Addison Russell never stood a chance against that 100 mph heater perfectly located on the low outside corner, and he couldn’t even muster a swing. Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard did take a hack at a Cole fastball in a recent game, and he should have saved himself some embarrassment and taken the backwards K:

Facing Cole gets tricky because he has three very high-speed offerings, two of them with great movement. His two-seamer has an absolutely unfair amount of cut for a pitch traveling 96 mph, as Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford (whose sister actually dates Cole) found out:

Cole has also mastered the sinker, which is instrumental in generating double plays, such as this one Marlins infielder Donovan Solano hit into:

Notice that sinker was also 96 mph? Based on velocity, three pitches out of Cole’s hand look similar, but two have great movement and batters have almost no time to distinguish between them.

But what really puts Cole on another level is his slider. Batters are forced to prepare for the fastball, and the slider leaves them severely off balance:

Did that slider ring up former MVP Buster Posey or the notoriously hack-happy pitcher Bartolo Colon? It’s hard to tell. Cole’s fast stuff clearly sets the table for the success of the slider, but the pitch would be great by itself because of its combination of break and velocity.

Cole’s pitch arsenal really isn’t fair. He seamlessly blends speed and movement in ways previously thought impossible, which has led to his rise to the upper crust of the league’s pitchers. And have I mentioned he’s just 24 years old? Cole has obtained “ace” status and he should remain there for a long time. It’s about time for America to hop on the Cole train.

Connor Mount

Connor Mount

Senior Staff Writer at The Left Bench
Connor Mount is an analytics enthusiast, which is polite for "sports nerd." Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, Class of 2017.
Connor Mount
About Connor Mount 164 Articles
Connor Mount is an analytics enthusiast, which is polite for "sports nerd." Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, Class of 2017.