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Slowing pitch speed, adding curve have helped Bucs' Cole

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 10:51 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers during his last start in Chicago on Sept. 24, 2013.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers a pitch during his last start in Chicago on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

ST. LOUIS – Gerrit Cole had a problem.

The difficulty was paradoxical as it was a good problem: Everything he threw was too hard.

Triple-A Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer worked with Cole in each of the past two seasons. Filer shook his head in amused disbelief as he spoke of the radar gun readings: “His slider is in the 90s. His changeup is in the 90s.” And his fastball touched 101.9 mph this June.

But the reason Cole will start Game 2 of the NLDS at 1 p.m. Friday in St. Louis, the reason Cole was the Pirates' best starting pitcher in September — posting a 4-0 record and 1.69 ERA last month — is that he found a found a different gear, a slower one.

Earlier this season, Cole struggled to miss bats. Analysts wondered where were the strikeouts? He posted a below-average strikeout rate at Triple-A, and he fanned an anemic 4.1 batters per nine innings in June. All this despite elite velocity.

But in September, Cole's overall performance and strikeout rate — 10.7 batters per nine — skyrocketed. Why? The breakout is tied to the curveball and velocity separation. He doubled curveball useage in September, throwing the air-break pitch on 17.8 percent of his offerings in September.

Cole has thrown 217 curves this season and opponents have just seven hits off the pitch and just one extra-base hit. The pitch's 20.2 percent whiff rate is the best of Cole's pitches.

“He needed velocity separation,” Filer said. “The curveball has been a really big pitch for him. And the development of that has been unbelievable.”

The development of the pitch has been difficult to comprehend because Cole has learned the new pitch on the fly, during his rookie season and in the midst of the Pirates' first postseason chase in 21 years.

“A lot of the feedback I got was that everything is hard,” Cole said of last season. “I did not have a curveball (prior to 2012). I started playing with it toward the end of the last year.”

Development began during bullpen sessions and in-game trials in Indianapolis. The pitch was still in development when Cole was called up to the majors in early June.

“I think my second day up here (A.J. Burnett) got a hold of me and started talking to me about it,” Cole said. “I don't have quite as big of hands as he does I can't really get around it as much as he can, but I try to copy (the knuckle-curve grip) as much as I can.”

Cole's confidence in the pitch grew through reps during side work. It has given Cole velocity differential to disrupt opponent batter's timing. Cole's fastball averages 96.1 mph, per PitchFx. His slider averages 89.1 mph and his changeup 88 mph. The curve is averaging 83.4 mph.

“He's gotten out of that 10-to-12 mile radius with the slider, the changeup, from 88 to 98,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “The strikeout numbers have jumped since that pitch was put into play.”

Filer is not surprised with Cole's rise from No. 1 overall pick in 2011 to Game No. 2 starter in the NLDS.

“I saw a lot of want,” Filer said. “You can sense it and hear it. He shows you ‘I want to get this right. I want it now.' He wanted it so quick.'”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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