Kovacevic: Falling for Pirates' Cole
MESA, Ariz. — Gerrit Cole climbed the mound under searing 91-degree skies, the Valley of the Sun's red hills making for a fiery backdrop, and somehow he was the one bringing the heat.
That was my first thought when watching the Pirates' No. 1 overall draft pick, the $8 million golden right arm from UCLA, strut his stuff Thursday. In his second Arizona Fall League start, the radar gun showed seven pitches at 100 mph or faster, compared to one in his debut last week. Six pitches reached 100, the other 101. One high offering had the home plate umpire ducking before it popped the catcher's raised mitt.
It was about that time I overheard this from the visitors' dugout in mostly empty Hohokam Park: "You gotta be kiddin' me!"
Which led to my second thought: This isn't something we've seen in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates haven't had a pure strikeout pitcher since Oliver Perez. Before that, it might go all the way back to Bob Veale. Even over the course of 125 years, they count Vern Law, Bob Friend and John Candelaria among their very best. None were big strikeout guys, and none is in the Hall of Fame.
That's not to remotely suggest Cole belongs in a discussion with those three. Or any major leaguer, for that matter. He probably is about two years away from his first pitch for the Pirates.
But it is to suggest Cole has a chance — even if that's all it is — to be truly special.
"Honestly, I'm not even looking ahead to next year right now," a sweat-free Cole told me after his three scoreless innings — two hits, a walk and three strikeouts — helped Mesa beat visiting Scottsdale, 4-1. "This is a great experience for me. It's all I'm thinking about, and I'm having fun with it."
OK, but good luck to anyone who watches this young man pitch and tries not to picture his future.
Cole is 21 years old, a filled-out 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, his arm is a cannon, and his delivery is as compact as that of Paul Maholm. His fastball sits at 97-98 mph when it isn't cracking triple digits, he especially impressed scouts yesterday with a dynamic changeup, he showed a good-enough slider, and he even toyed with two cutters that were new to the scouts.
That's natural talent above anything the Pirates have seen in recent memory, even with their recent high-priced amateur acquisitions. Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, has the total package but not that kind of velocity. Stetson Allie can throw 100 mph but is erratic and should end up a reliever. Luis Heredia, still a baby at 17, is flat-out difficult to project.
With Cole, what you see is what you get: He's big, strong, tough and looks ready to go.
It was the poise, though, that stood out for me. This is much more than just some jock rearing back.
The Arizona Fall League provides an annual six-week slate in which each major league team sends at least seven of its best prospects. The caliber of competition could rate as a plus version of Class AA, but it can be far better depending on matchups.
Cole would find a bunch of those yesterday. The top three spots in Scottsdale's lineup were filled by elite prospects who spent part of 2011 in the majors. At leadoff was Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels' outfielder who is ranked No. 1 in the sport by Baseball America. Fifth in the order was Washington phenom Bryce Harper, the outfielder who adorned Sports Illustrated's cover at age 16.
Robbie Grossman, the Pirates' outfield prospect leading the league with five home runs and 23 hits, called the Scottsdale card "as close to the majors as you get."
Cole didn't seem moved much. Unlike his first start last week, when he admitted nerves, he attacked each hitter based on a detailed plan, and he moved rhythmically and methodically through it. Against Trout, he went 1-1 by opening with two fastballs and gauged Trout's swing to see he was trying hard to pull. Cole threw a changeup, splintered Trout's bat and got a groundout.
"Yeah, there was a handful of big-league guys over there," Cole said. "You've just got to know what you're dealing with and trust your stuff. A lot of times, you're not going to throw your changeup until they prove they can get to your fastball. But against major league hitters or a lineup like this, you have to keep them off balance with some slow stuff."
For whatever Cole considers slow, his changeup was clocked at 89 mph.