What Gerrit Cole did Friday afternoon in Game 2 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals is what every organization dreams of from a No. 1 overall draft pick.
Making his first career postseason start, Cole, who the Pirates selected first overall in the 2011 draft, held the Cardinals in check for six innings, allowing one earned run on two hits and a walk with five strikeouts. The 23-year-old even helped his own cause at the plate with a two-out RBI single in the second inning to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead.
Cole was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis in early June and served as one of the team’s more consistent starters following his arrival, posting a 2.85 ERA with 75 strikeouts in 75.2 innings over 12 starts following the All-Star break. More importantly, the right-hander thrived amidst a heated playoff race in September, going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 39/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings (five starts).
But as we all know, regular-season success means nothing come October. So, nobody really knew what to expect from Cole on Friday, especially against a dangerous Cardinals offense that scored 77 more runs than any other NL team this season and set a modern record by batting .330 with runners in scoring position.
So, let’s break down what made the rookie so successful against the Cardinals.
Friday’s game marked the first time the Cardinals faced Cole, so everything they knew about the right-hander heading into the game was courtesy of advanced scouting reports and video. However, this seemingly worked against St. Louis; most evaluations of Cole would best describe him as a pitcher with electric swing-and-miss stuff but command that still leaves something to be desired. That being said, if he can be efficient with the fastball while keeping his secondary offerings around the zone...then look out.
The Cardinals ran into the latter version of Cole on Friday, as the right-hander used his full arsenal to shut down their potent offense through six outstanding innings. Cole’s success, as is generally the case with him, was a direct result of consistently getting ahead in the count. Specifically, he threw a first-pitch strike against 13 of the 21 hitters he faced and went on to retire all but two of them.
Gerrit Cole is the epitome of a power pitcher, boasting a fastball that registers in the upper 90s and routinely scrapes triple digits. However—as I’m sure everyone is now aware—he’s more than just a velocity guy. When he’s at his best, the young righty features a wipeout slider in the upper 80s and a mid-80s changeup with late fading action to the arm side. On Friday afternoon, all three pitches were on full display as Cole and catcher Russell Martin executed a specific plan of attack.
Having thrown his fastball 64.63 percent of the time during the regular season, Cole scaled back his use of the pitch to 54.65 percent in Game 2 (47 of 86 pitches), according to Brooks Baseball. That suggested that both he and Martin anticipated the Cardinals would be sitting “dead red” early in the count from the onset of the game.
Suffice it to say that they were on to something.
Both of the hits that Cole allowed in the game came against his fastball. In the first inning, Carlos Beltran—a notorious fastball hitter—turned on an elevated, middle-in 97 mph heater for a ringing double to the right-centerfield gap. Later, Yadier Molina accounted for the Cardinals’ only run on the afternoon, drilling an opposite-field, solo home run on a poorly located fastball (95 mph).
Beyond that, however, Cole was highly effective with his heater, throwing the pitch for a strike 61.7 percent of the time while commanding it to each quadrant of the zone. And even though the Cardinals were looking to turn around his fastball, Cole confidently threw it first pitch to 13 hitters, including nine over the first three innings.
Should Gerrit Cole start a potential Game 5 for the Pirates?
However, Cole’s feel for sequencing his slider and changeup is what made him almost unhittable over six innings on Friday. The star rookie intentionally showed both pitches to a majority of the Cardinals hitters during the first trip through the lineup while working off his fastball. Basically, Cole conveyed the message that he was feeling good with his entire arsenal and, as a result, he was able to keep hitters off balance throughout the game.
So, the fact he recorded four of five strikeouts with his fastball is simply a testament to his execution. And when the lineup turned over, Gerrit Cole adjusted his approach and pitched backward, relying on his secondaries to get ahead in the count.
If the NLDS goes to five games, manager Clint Hurdle will be forced to make a tough decision. As of now, veteran A.J. Burnett is scheduled to start a potential Game 5 in St. Louis despite allowing seven runs in two-plus inning in Thursday’s Game 1 loss. However, with two days off built into the postseason schedule between Friday and Game 5, Cole would be able to make the start on normal rest. And given the way he threw in Game 2's win, I wouldn't be the least surprised if he ultimately gets the nod over Burnett.