Pirates' top prospect Cole shows how far he has come since draft
INDIANAPOLIS — Gerrit Cole hears the chorus from coaches and teammates so often that he repeats the refrain himself: “Stay in the moment.”
Cole is the Pirates' No. 1 prospect, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2011 draft. He is the linebacker-sized, right-handed pitcher with a fastball that hit 99 mph on the 88th pitch of his start in Indianapolis on Wednesday. He has made 38 minor league starts while waiting to make his big league debut. His time will arrive at 7 p.m. Tuesday at PNC Park against former Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum of the reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
But for Cole to earn this moment, his moment, he has had to learn to remain in the present, in the moment.
Indianapolis catcher Tony Sanchez saw it too often early this season. Too frequently, he caught the are-you-kidding-me body language from Cole after a strike call was missed by an umpire or a broken-bat hit fell. Sanchez always is studying pitchers on the staff, learning what they like and what they don't, absorbing what they respond to and what they ignore. He has learned to raise his volume with Cole.
“I'll go out there, and I'll throw in some curse words and yell at him a little bit,” said Sanchez, who quickly finds it is Cole's anger that is the problem. “I say, ‘Who cares? We're in the fifth inning, there's no score, there's a runner on first, you have a 100 mph fastball. Give me that fastball, and we'll get out of this.' ”
When frustrated, Cole loses his ability to focus and execute. There can be a resulting avalanche effect. In his May 19 start at Pawtucket, Cole allowed five-run and three-run innings.
“I get frustrated,” he said. “I have high expectations for myself. … I remember I was in spring training, and I gave up a home run to (Baltimore catcher Ryan) Flaherty. It wasn't that 2-0 pitch that got me hurt, it was the two pitches before. You have to just get back on the mound and keep going and keep attacking. It's harder than it sounds. … That's the whole thing about controlling what you can control.”
Some speculate that Cole's slow start this season might have been tied to a disappointment of being sent to Triple-A after pitching well in spring training. There was frustration in knowing part of the reason top prospects often are held back is so teams can delay service time for arbitration and free agency purposes.
“There was an initial disappointment,” Cole said. “I think sometimes it's perceived that I was really disappointed. But the bottom line is, if your goal is not to make the big league team out of spring, what are you there for?”
Cole has responded from the May 19 rocky start by throwing 18 2⁄3 consecutive scoreless innings over his past three starts, lowering his ERA to 2.91.
Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor said he has seen Cole's focus and body language improve.
“Part of the package of being a top-of-the rotation guy is you have to stop (stuff) from happening,” Treanor said. “With other guys, it becomes a three- or four-run inning. He has to make it a one-run inning.
“You'll see him get frustrated by things that are happening, whether it's hits that he's given up, runs he's given up. I think earlier in the year there was a tendency for things to snowball. … Now he understands it's up to him to minimize the damage.”
Cole's four-pitch package has drawn comparisons to Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg's:
• Cole has a 94-99 mph fastball, and he keeps the velocity deep into starts due to strength generated from his thick 6-foot-4, 250-pound build. “When we tell him that's enough at 100 pitches, he's like, ‘What? I feel great,' ” Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer said. “He's going to be a workhorse.”
• Filer thinks Cole's best pitch is a 87-90 mph changeup, which like Strasburg's, has late fading action and as much velocity as some pitchers' fastballs.
• Cole has a sharp-breaking curveball that he used to freeze Durham second baseman Vince Belnome on Wednesday for one of his three strikeouts.
• Cole also has a swing-and-miss upper 80s slider that he has not thrown as frequently so he can focus on developing his other off-speed pitches.
But analysts wonder: Where are the Strasburg-like strikeout totals? Despite the rare stuff, Cole holds a pedestrian rate of 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings in Triple-A.
Filer said he's not worried about the strikeouts. They'll come when Cole tightens his command. Cole said the lack of strikeouts is a conscious choice.
“I don't go for strikeouts,” he said. “I know I can get them when I want to. But I know it's really important to challenge guys in the zone and beat them in the zone. When you have a game where you throw 100 pitches in five innings and strike out 10, a lot of people that weren't there write that up as a dominant outing. What is really dominating is (San Francisco pitcher) Matt Cain throwing a complete game with 100 pitches and giving up just two hits with two strikeouts.
“So many other things are more important than strikeouts, like the pace of the game and keeping your fielders ready. ... You can't think about what other people are writing about you — why haven't I struck out a 100 million people yet? — you have to get that (stuff) out of your head.”
Cole studies video. He studies his mechanics and comparable right-handed pitchers. Lately he has watched video of Roger Clemens and Justin Verlander from early in their careers.
“When a lot of those power guys come up, Verlander and those guys, they are good at one thing,” Cole said. “What did they do that's so consistent that allows them to overpower these guys? I don't think anyone comes up looking like Greg Maddux. It's interesting to see that, and a lot of times it's command of the fastball. It's not necessarily command on the black (of the plate) every pitch; it's just throwing it the right way and challenging the guys. They are so consistent in their delivery. They throw the ball the same way every time.”
Cole marvels at how robotic they are. The game's best pitchers repeat their deliveries as if programmed while being able to brush off adversity.
The Pirates stress fastball command in the minor leagues and want Cole to develop a steeper plane with his fastball and more consistent mechanics. This requires focused repetition.
Progress was on display against Durham on Wednesday. Cole kept the fastball in the lower half of the strike zone. He allowed three hits over seven innings, walking one. Most contact was weak, and there were moments of brilliance such as when he painted the corner with a 98 mph fastball for a strikeout of Tim Beckham.
Cole faced another stay-in-the-moment test Wednesday when he learned of the injury to Pirates starter Wandy Rodriguez minutes before taking the mound. Would he get the call? Was his time near? He pushed those thoughts away and pounded the strike zone, throwing 62 of his 95 pitches for strikes.
An NL scout marveled at Cole's improved mechanics. He had seen Cole multiple times and said he gets in trouble when his fastball “gets flat.” But the fastball was on a steep plane down in the zone Wednesday. “(With command) he makes it look easy … his stuff is too good,” the scout said.
Against the reigning Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, Wil Myers, Cole was focused and in command of his fastball.
“I think the thing that makes him really good is he changes speeds with his fastball,” Myers said. “He ranges anywhere from 92-99 (mph). He can really pitch with his fastball well. He has a great slider, great changeup. I think he has three-plus pitches. … Everybody in (the Durham clubhouse) is talking about how well he threw.”
There's no way to prepare for the moment: the nerves, the excitement that will accompany Cole on the mount Tuesday at PNC Park.
Is he ready to face big league hitters?
“I have to answer yes,” Cole said. “I'm not going to say no. I don't think anyone is going to say no. A guy in A ball would be like, ‘(Heck), yeah, I'm ready. Bring me up!' ”
Cole has pitched in a more charged environment than what he could face against the defending champs. During the 2011 College World Series, Cole allowed a three-run triple to TCU's Taylor Featherston, cutting UCLA's lead to 6-3 in the seventh inning of a winner's bracket game.
“That year was a TCU crowd,” Cole said. “When that guy hit that triple, it's like the whole stadium jumped simultaneously. It was nuts, it was so electric. Coach came out and talked to us. I looked at (shortstop) Niko (Gallego), and I was like ‘Dude, Nik, did you feel the ground shake?' ”
Cole struck out the next batter to end the inning. He struck out two more in the eighth, finishing with 13 strikeouts over eight innings in leading UCLA to the win. How did he stay in the moment?
“You have your breathing, your stuff to calm down,” Cole said. “You just embrace it and go with it. … You won't see another environment like (the College World Series) until October.”
Another moment, another milestone, for another time.