Evolution of curveball raises Pirates hurler Cole's ceiling
BRADENTON, Fla. — On a sticky afternoon last August, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage pulled aside Gerrit Cole in the visiting team's bullpen at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Cole was about to begin his usual between-starts throwing session.
Mix in some curveballs, Searage suggested.
Cole used the pitch while at UCLA, but it was merely a complement to his 100 mph fastball and nasty slider. He hadn't thrown the curve much since the Pirates made him the top overall draft pick in 2011.
With only 11 big league starts on Cole's resume, Searage didn't expect to add the curve to his repertoire right away. He just wanted the kid to dust it off and see what it could do.
Cole nodded and started pitching. After a minute or two, Searage's eyes opened wide.
“Oh my gosh,” Searage whispered to himself. “We're on to something here. This is good.”
Two days later, Cole faced the Arizona Diamondbacks at PNC Park and worked six innings for the win. Of his 98 pitches, nine were curveballs. It was the last time that pitch would account for less than 10 percent of his offerings in a game.
Six weeks later, Cole ended the regular season with another six-inning gem against the Chicago Cubs. In that game, 25 percent of his pitches were curves.
It wasn't just that Cole used his curveball more. It was the improvement in a short period of time.
According to BrooksBaseball.net, in August, when Cole started using the curveball more, the pitch had a 15.9 percent whiff rate. In September, it climbed to 29.3 percent.
“The thing with ‘G' is, he picks stuff up real quick,” former teammate A.J. Burnett said. “He'll see it, and ... I don't know what he does. Maybe he goes home and throws in his bedroom for two hours. But he picks it up real quick.”
Most pitchers have their hands full as rookies merely learning how to survive in the majors. Cole did that — and added a devastating new weapon. That ability to evolve, fearlessly and under less-than-ideal circumstances, is part of what makes Cole an elite pitcher.
“Very few kids come up nowadays where they have ‘it.' They're not scared. They're not timid. They don't care,” Burnett said. “ ‘G' is one of them. He's fierce on the mound. He can win a lot of games if he stays healthy.”
‘Where is this curveball?'
After he joined the Pirates in 2012, Burnett heard talk about the big, hard-throwing prospect from Southern California who was pushing his way up in the minors. As they worked together for parts of two spring trainings, Burnett sized up Cole's potential.
Burnett is a curveball connoisseur — he used the pitch 35 percent of the time last season, the most in the National League — so he smiled when Cole mentioned he threw it in college. When Cole was called up in June, Burnett was eager to see the rookie's breaking ball in action.
“The first five or six games, I'm like, ‘Where is this curveball?' ” Burnett recalled. “He threw it a couple times, and it was not good — not good at all. With him, everything is so hard, hard, hard. We got in the cage a couple times and worked on it.”
Even with a blazing fastball, Cole did not get a lot of strikeouts out of the gate. As his curveball usage picked up, so did his strikeouts.
“The punchouts started coming because it got him off everything (being) hard, hard, hard,” Burnett said. “Once he got the mentality of, ‘I'm going to get ahead in the count and put you away,' his pitch counts went down, strikeouts went up, (and) he started pitching deeper.”
Catcher Russell Martin picked up on the change, too.
“I saw progression with his curveball,” Martin said. “He was able to get more break, more bite on it. It was sharper. It seemed everything was starting to come together toward September.”
An eight-year veteran, Martin has worked with some of the best pitchers in the game and has seen them adapt. When Clayton Kershaw fired his first pitch in 2008, it smacked into Martin's glove.
“When Kershaw first came up, he was fastball, curveball, occasional changeup,” Martin said. “His most devastating pitch right now is probably his slider. When (Tim) Lincecum came up, he was fastball, curveball. His best pitch now is his changeup. Those are pitches that weren't even in their repertoire — I'm sure they had a feel for it — but it became their bread and butter as they progressed. Both of those guys won their Cy Youngs because they were able to add a pitch that became their best pitch.”
‘Go get 'em, kid'
For the first few weeks of spring training this year, Cole did not tinker much with his curveball. For any pitcher, commanding the fastball is the top priority.
Cole still is learning the effect his curve has on hitters and how he can set up the pitch. He can use it in reverse to make his fastball even better.
“I'm getting aggressive with the spin,” Cole said. “I'm still going through the process of taking some velocity off, adding some velocity.”
That refinement will be ongoing, even during the season. At the midpoint of spring training, Cole's fastball sat at 96 mph. The slider was 88 to 90 mph, his changeup was 88 mph and the curveball was around 87 mph.
“A lot of people think about those numbers and go, ‘My gosh! Everything's so hard,' ” Searage said. “No. Because he throws 95-96 (mph), everything is in partnership with the velocity of the fastball. They feed off each other. For now, I'm not going to fix anything that isn't broken. The game will dictate when we have to do that. Right now it's, ‘Go get 'em, kid.' ”
After 11 seasons in the majors, outfielder Eric Byrnes retired eight months before Cole was drafted. But as an analyst for MLB Network — and a former UCLA player — Byrnes has seen enough to know he wouldn't enjoy stepping to the plate against Cole.
“There are guys who come up, and you wonder what kind of staying power they're going to have,” Byrnes said. “A lot of guys come up throwing hard, and you look at them and think to yourself, ‘OK, it's just a matter of time before we figure this guy out.' But Cole doesn't really have a whole lot of weaknesses.
“I think he's just scratching the surface. This isn't about what hitters are going to do to (adapt to) Gerrit Cole. I think he's going to be one of the premier pitchers in baseball for the next 10 years. I may be a little biased because he's also a UCLA guy. But when I first watched him, I knew he had ‘it.' ”