Though he won both of them, Gerrit Cole barely looked like a major league-caliber pitcher in the first two starts of his career. If it was more of the same in his third start, it was going to be all too easy to demand that the Pittsburgh Pirates return him to Triple-A as soon as possible.
What Cole, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft, delivered on Friday night against the Los Angeles Angels was not more of the same. Though he failed to put an exclamation point on the end of it, he at least made his message easy to decipher.
"Yeah, I belong here."
Cole's latest start was easily his best yet. He held the Angels to two earned runs over six and one-third innings, allowing four hits, a walk (his first) and a home run (also his first). The Pirates won 5-2, giving Cole a perfect 3-0 record.
Bear in mind that Cole did this against a hot team. According to FanGraphs, no team in baseball had scored more runs over the previous seven days than the Angels.
But the best part? Cole struck out five hitters. He had struck out only three in his first two starts combined, and those five strikeouts are a fine testament to how well Cole pitched.
The velocity was certainly there. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports will gladly tell you all about it:
Well, Matt Harvey's fastest-pitch-by-starter-in-bigs-this-year didn't last long. Gerrit Cole has five 100+mph pitches, including legit 101.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 22, 2013
The velocity was great, but what was even better was that Cole's hard stuff was actually as overpowering as the velocity says it should be for a change.
Cole got eight whiffs in his debut against the San Francisco Giants. According to Brooks Baseball, seven of those came on 64 fastballs, which doesn't add up when one considers just how hard Cole is capable of throwing a baseball.
Against the Los Angeles Dodgers his last time out, Cole got only four whiffs. Brooks Baseball says he once again threw 64 fastballs and got only three whiffs with those. That made it a grand total of 10 whiffs on 128 fastballs through two starts.
The only proper reaction to something like that: Befuddlement.
Against the Angels, however, Cole got a total of 10 whiffs. The raw data at Brooks Baseball says he got nine of those on 77 fastballs, but this is a case where I'm not inclined to trust the raw data. It looked to me like Cole was mixing up his pitches a lot better than that, with his slider being particularly effective.
We know at least one was. Don't we, Baseball America's Ben Badler?
Gerrit Cole throws a 100-mph fastball followed by a wicked 91-mph slider to strike out Mike Trout. What a boss.— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) June 22, 2013
Elsewhere, I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of the "fastballs" Cole threw need to be reclassified as changeups. A good changeup from Cole, after all, has the velocity of most other good fastballs.
Regardless of how the pieces fall into place, there's no denying that Cole was absolutely in control through the first six innings of the game. He flashed dominance in his first two starts, but he actually was dominant on Friday night.
Until the seventh inning, anyway. Cole gave up a leadoff home run to Albert Pujols to start the seventh inning, and that seemed to rattle him. He immediately followed his first career homer with his first career walk to Mark Trumbo, and then he gave up two straight bullets. The first ricocheted off him and became an out, and the second went into center field for an RBI.
Had Cole cruised through the seventh like he had cruised through the first six innings, he would have turned in one of the top performances by a Pirates hurler this year. As it is, the game score of 61 that he earned is a new personal best.
From here, keeping Cole at the major league level isn't going to be an easy call for Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. He told Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com that he was looking to see both dominance and staying power from Cole. He wasn't sure he had seen either in Cole's first two starts, and understandably so.
Huntington surely saw the dominance on Friday night, as the rest of us did. But after what happened in the seventh inning, he may not be entirely convinced he's seen the staying power yet.
There's also business to consider.
Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette may be justified in wondering if the Pirates acted too soon and called Cole up before the Super Two cutoff. Huntington may be inclined to send him back down to Triple-A for a week or two just to be safe.
Do you think Gerrit Cole has earned the right to be a permanent member of Pittsburgh's rotation?
Then there's the looming logjam. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeanmar Gomez and James McDonald are all on the disabled list, but the Pirates' official website says Gomez and McDonald could be back soon. Their pending returns could combine with Cole's clock status to force Huntington's hand.
But the Pirates need to be real here.
Cole has considerably more upside than both Gomez and McDonald, and their rotation would be something legitimately scary if Cole were to be well established by the time Burnett and Rodriguez are ready to come back. The three of them would look mighty good next to a resurgent Francisco Liriano and a quietly excellent Jeff Locke.
The Pirates have built their success this season around strong pitching. In a day and age when pitching rules, they'd be wise to do everything in their power to stay headed in that course. They have a better chance of doing that with Cole as a regular contributor in their rotation than they do with him as a part-time contributor.
Keeping Cole right where he's at could indeed cost the Pirates a few bucks in the long run. But in the short run, keeping him right where he's at could be a deciding factor in ending their postseason drought.
It's worth the sleep they might lose for the Pirates to find out—for I'd say the drought has gone on long enough.
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