Gerrit Cole has thrived in a Houston Astros uniform thanks to a new pitch mix and a change of scenery. What lessons can the Pittsburgh pirates take from Cole’s newfound steadiness?
He has only had three starts in 2018, yet former Pittsburgh Pirates hurler is the talk of pitching twitter right now:
Gerrit Cole tonight, so far: 40 fastballs in 81 pitches. 12 K in 6 IP.
I mean, we all get a ton wrong, and we should own that. But my god, *everyone* said Cole would leave PIT for HOU and get 2000x better.
If I'm Chad Kuhl, I think I'm noticing this.
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) April 14, 2018
Coming into this year Gerrit Cole had 6 10+ strikeout games in 129 starts… He's done it in all 3 starts this season.
— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 14, 2018
Gerrit Cole is the 3rd pitcher in modern MLB history (since 1900) with 10+ strikeouts in each of his 1st 3 starts with a team.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 14, 2018
Pittsburgh certainly has some modicum of egg on their face with the way that Cole is pitching. Some put it more bluntly:
Three starts into Gerrit Cole's Astros career, I think it can be safely said the Pirates F'd up with him.
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) April 14, 2018
The truth is somewhere in the middle; definitively, however, one could easily say that the Pittsburgh Pirates did not get as much out of Cole as they should from a number one overall pick of Cole’s stature.
That is unequivocally correct, sample size (or lack thereof) be damned. As a team that must draft and develop well, the Pirates swung and missed on realizing Cole’s full potential, pun intended.
But, what’s done is done. Here now are three lessons that the club can take away from Cole’s success to avoid repeating the same missteps with future talent.
Coach to talent, period.
Much has been made about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ proclivity for fastballs. High and in, low and in, in and…in, the Pirates’ pitching philosophy in previous years has been as pervasive and unyielding as the eastern bloc at its peak.
Credit to Ray Searage, Jim Benedict and others for finding a philosophy to maximize their hurlers’ ability at a time when the club needed to wring every last drop out of its talent to break the 20 year losing streak.
However, it’s not 2013 anymore. Rather than employ one pitching technique or philosophy to rule them all, Pittsburgh must do everything in its power to coax the most out of its pitching talent.
And, no, it’s not because they are behind in the recent baseball trend that shows that fastballs are less emphasized in recent years — though that is important — rather it has more to do with their financial limitations. Whether self-imposed or not, the Pittsburgh Pirates need to get the most out of their drafted and developed pitching talent.
This lesson can be applied easily and practically. If a pitcher’s breaking stuff plays a bit better than his fastball, it needs to be emphasized. It should not be cast away, only to be used at a small enough percentage to keep hitters honest. It should not be a brief, tantalizing glance at what a more complete arsenal could look like for a pitcher, with cameos in between heaters.
And that’s pretty much the end of the story. This is such an obvious one that we should probably just move on.
Recognize when a changes are needed, both large and small, and do it quickly.
Much of Cole’s success has been attributed to the dire need for a change in scenery. In his case, it meant new environs altogether.
When I say “recognize when a change is needed,” that does not necessarily mean that the Pirates should abandon a player prematurely, and dump him for whatever the club can get. Needed change can be implemented atÂ bothÂ the micro and the macro.
For Cole, that could have meant changing up the pitch mix to keep him engaged. And that’s doubly true for Charlie Morton, whose success story largely mimics Cole’s.
In more recent history, swapping Andrew McCutchen out of centerfield sooner than the 2017 season springs up as an example of a micro-level change of scenery. Moving Josh Harrison up in the lineup qualifies as well. One of the brightest examples of implementing change woudl be the uptick in performance that Chad Kuhl enjoyed last year when he started to throw his curveball more. This one gets bonus points as it ties together both of our lessons to this point. In Kuhl’s case, the Pittsburgh Pirates coaching staff recognized that emphasizing his curve more would actually help his fastball play better, and that fact likely felt like a cold drink on a hot summer’s day to the fastball-heavy club.
Do everything in your power to maintain a winning culture
Have you noticed that the Pittsburgh Pirates’ clubhouse feels a lot looser this season? I’m sure you have.
Gerrit Cole’s time with Pittsburgh did not feel that way. Sure, the club had success during his time, but do you recall ever seeing an eruption of joy, or the consistently upbeat nature that you’re seeing with the current club.
If you didn’t see it, you’re not alone. Longtime Pittsburgh Pirates reporter detailed as much in his brand-new The Perrotto Report newsletter recently. in a recent edition, Perrotto had several Pirates players quoted off the record as equating the Pirates’ time with Cole (and McCutchen) as a “bad marriage.”
It’s the great uncharted territory of sports anlaytics, but it doesn’t take a sabermetician to tell you that a loose, together and engaged clubhouse can propel a talented team to win. I firmly believe we are seeing that now with the 2018 Pirates, and it makes you wonder if the team’s last two years in the wilderness might have been minimized with better clubhouse leadership.
This last lesson is perhaps the hardest to implement, perhaps because both the front office and the coaching staff have the least control over it. Neal Huntington and his staff rightly should not have any sway on clubhouse matters, and manager Clint Hurdle can only do so much. What these two parties can do, however, is insert the right talent in the right spots into the locker room to augment the team’s stars. Guys like David Freese and Sean Rodriguez leap to mind.
No matter the faces, talent has proven to perform when the environment around them is productive to performance. That simply wasn’t the case during the majority of Cole’s time on the north shore. By the way, this cuts both ways. It is entirely likely that Cole is in the right environment for him with veterans such as Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel as rotation mates.
Right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates seem as if they have their version of “the one that got away” with Cole’s success in Houston.
If the team keeps these lessons in mind, perhaps the sting of watching someone thrive elsewhere after their time in Pittsburgh can be minimized.