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Changeup could prove to be key for Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole

| Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 8:09 p.m.
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The Pirates' Gerrit Cole pitches during the bottom of the first inning against the Brewers on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in Milwaukee.

MILWAUKEE — In the fourth inning Tuesday night at Miller Park, Milwaukee Brewers left-handed hitter Logan Schafer seemed surprised.

Schafer took a half-hearted swing at a Gerrit Cole pitch and whiffed for a strikeout. Schafer's swing suggested he was caught off guard by the pitch and was unable to stop his swing, once committed. He had reason to appear perplexed.

The 88 mph pitch had excellent movement fading away from Schafer and toward the right-handed batter's box.

Schafer likely was surprised because the vast majority of Cole's off-speed pitches — his curveball and slider — break in to left-handed hitters and away from righties.

Cole has thrown his changeup on just 3 percent of pitch offerings this season, down from 7.8 percent last season, according to Fangraphs.com.

It is the changeup that could give Cole another weapon against left-handed hitters, and that could allow his upper-90s fastball to play up even more and add to his strikeout total.

It is the changeup Triple-A Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer thought could develop into Cole's best pitch.

It is the changeup that could allow Cole to become a legit No. 1 — if the hard-throwing Cole learns to trust the pitch.

Cole was asked after Tuesday's game if he had the best changeup of his young career against the Brewers.

“Absolutely. I got good results out of them,” Cole said. “I thought I threw a couple good ones the last game (against the San Francisco Giants). ... It's been coming along. Sometimes the way things play out, when something's working for you, you don't really go away from it. Sometimes, I haven't had the opportunity to take that risk.

“(Tuesday) it showed up early, and we stayed with it. I threw strikes to right-handers with it. Got some swings and misses with it.”

Cole was advertised as a four-pitch pitcher coming out of UCLA, but he had little use for the changeup against minor league hitters and might have lost some feel for the pitch as he relied heavily upon his fastball and slider early last season, and his fastball and curveball in September.

“The changeup is a feel (pitch), and I guess you could maybe lump conviction in with feel,” Cole said. “It's one of those pitches where when you are throwing it in a bullpen, you really get no read on it. Unless you are Johan (Santana) or (Francisco Rodriguez) and the changeup is a pitch you can throw it any count, for most of us, it is a pitch you throw off of the fastball. So you kind of have to get the swings and the reads and be presented with the situations to get the feel going.”

A common question for Cole early last season was one regarding his lacking strikeout totals despite a 100 mph fastball. Cole's strikeout rate — 7.69 per nine innings — is again about league average despite elite velocity. It's important to remember fastballs don't generate swings and misses like quality off-speed pitches, and it is the changeup has become a strikeout weapon for pitchers with similar velocity, such as Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer.

“I think he continues to grow,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's shown a lot of progress.”

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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