If the Pirates plan to have success this season, one-time ace Gerrit Cole needs to remain healthy and return to the form he showed in 2015.
As spring training arrives, we’re going to take some time to look at a few key players for the Pirates this season and break down what we can expect from them, as well as some of their keys to success. And if you poll Pirates fans, I’d argue that the vast majority would say that the most important player to the team this upcoming season is Gerrit Cole.
Why is this? Well we know how important starting pitching is across baseball. The best teams in the National League the past few seasons all have great rotations: the Cubs, Nationals, Dodgers, Giants, and Mets all have aces headlining their staffs, and outside of the Dodgers, they all have pretty deep staffs. And time and time again we see that it’s more important to have great pitching come playoff time than it is to have a great lineup. One of the reasons the Pirates lost the 2015 Wild Card game was because Gerrit Cole didn’t pitch well. Possibly the only other player as important to the Pirates’ success this season is Andrew McCutchen.
So, what does Cole need to do to have a rebound year this upcoming season?
It seems obvious, but perhaps the biggest factor to Cole’s 2017 season will be his health. In both 2014 and 2016, Cole battled DL stints that not only limited his ability to get on the field, but also seemed to reduce his effectiveness. It’s clear to see that the injuries and his effectiveness weren’t separate situations; shoulder fatigue in 2014 and a right triceps strain last year affected his ability to throw. We saw Cole try to return from his injury last season, but he was shut down after just one start.
Cole was on an upward trajectory before 2016. His 2015 campaign left everyone with hope for what his future might hold. If he can stay healthy this season, I believe Cole will be closer to his 2015 form than last season.
How many innings will Gerrit Cole pitch in 2017?
— Pirates Breakdown (@pbcbreakdown) February 14, 2017
Increase the strikeouts
Coming into the bigs as a top prospect, what separated Cole from the average pitching prospect was his fastball. We all remember him striking out the first batter he faced on three straight fastballs.
As he tried to round out his repertoire, Cole began to use a slider more, and stopped using a cutter altogether. And this strategy seemed to work. In 2015, his strikeouts per nine was at 8.7 and he was able to drop his walks per nine to a career-low 1.9. But in 2016, he had career-worsts in K/9, BB/9, and H/9. What changed for Cole? Obviously his injury negatively affected him, but did he change his pitch selection?
Actually, he did. While his velocity remained constant at about 95 mph, he threw his four-seam fastball just 60% of the time, a drop of eight points from his breakout 2015 campaign. He began to use a two-seamer much more last year, a pitch he almost never used in 2015.
Why does all this matter? Gerrit Cole was able to throw over 200 strikeouts while limiting walks in 2016. This is what makes Cole great. The ace of every staff has the ability to take over a game when necessary by not letting batters get on base or even put the ball in play. If he can return to the pitch selection he used in 2016, namely returning to relying on his four-seamer, that will go a long way towards getting those strikeouts back up, which is a hallmark to Cole’s success.
Which Gerrit Cole Will The Pirates Get in 2017?
Assume a leadership role
Even if Cole doesn’t stay healthy for 100% of the season, he needs to strongly consider assuming a leadership position with this staff. Yes, Ivan Nova is older than him and the rest of the starters, but Cole’s been with the team longer. Behind those two, the staff will likely be comprised of Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and either Tyler Glasnow or Drew Hutchison, each of whom is 26 years of age or younger. If Glasnow makes the staff over Hutchison, then no one in the back three will have pitched a full major league season yet. It’s certainly a young staff, and Cole, who also has postseason experience, could provide invaluable advice to a staff that needs to find success in order for the club to compete this season.
Expectation for 2017
Knowing all of the above, I expect Cole to bounce back this season. He’s had a full off-season to rest and has undergone a regular off-season with no setbacks. IF he stays healthy, which I hope and expect him too, Cole will return to at least being a quality number-two starter on a playoff contender. He has the mindset and the tools to do so. He also knows that this may be a make-or-break season for him. If he has another poor year, the Pirates and other teams will start looking at him more as an okay number-two starter or a solid number-three. That’s a huge difference in money come free agency, which Cole is set to eventually pursue as a Scott Boras client. I see Gerrit Cole re-establishing himself as an ace this year. The Pirates certainly need him to do just that.