By John Perrotto
July 19, 2015
National League's Gerrit Cole, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, throws during the third inning of the MLB All-Star baseball game, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
As hard it might be to believe now, the Pittsburgh Pirates were criticized in some circles a little more than four years ago for picking the wrong UCLA pitcher.
The Pirates had the first pick in the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft and chose Gerrit Cole, even though fellow Bruins right-hander Trevor Bauer had better statistics that spring and was higher on many team’s draft boards.
Bauer, selected third by the Arizona Diamondbacks, since has been traded but is having a solid season with the Cleveland Indians, going 8-6 with a 4.03 ERA in 18 starts. His career record is 15-18 with a 4.29 ERA in 52 starts.
Cole, meanwhile, has blossomed into an ace in his second full season with the Pirates. He led the major leagues wins at the All-Star break and is 13-3 with a 2.30 ERA in 18 starts, raising his career record to 34-15 with a 3.09 ERA in 59 starts.
Cole makes his next start Tuesday night when he faces the defending American League champion Royals at Kansas City.
“Who would you take now?” said an executive from an AL team earlier this week. “Is that even a question?”
Cole had pedigree when the Pirates drafted him. He had been the New York Yankees’ first-round pick in 2008 following his senior year of high school in Orange, Calif., but opted to attend college.
The Pirates felt the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Cole possessed the physical traits necessary to be an ace with his large build and fastball that reached triple digits. They also felt he had above average intelligence that would eventually help him overcome bouts of immaturity which Cole readily admits kept him from signing with the Yankees.
This year, the physical and mental side of pitching have come together and it has been something to see.
Cole throws two kinds of fastballs, a four-seamer and a sinking two-seamer, along with a slider, curveball and changeup and is willing to mix them up. However, the quality of those pitches have improved noticeably since he made his major league debut in June, 2013.
“He wasn’t getting a lot of swings and misses when he first got called up,” said Pirates right-hander A.J. Burnett, who was part of the National League squad along with Cole this past Tuesday at the All-Star Game at Cincinnati. “Now you’re seeing him put together strikeouts.”
Cole is averaging 8.9 strikeouts this season, up from 7.7 in 2013 and consistent with his 9.0 mark of last season.
One hitter who has noticed the improvement is San Francisco Giants All-Star shortstop Brandon Crawford, whose sister Amy became engaged to Cole on Wednesday. Amy Crawford played softball at UCLA while Cole was on the baseball team.
“When he came up, he threw the fastball 97-98 mph, and it didn’t have a lot of movement,” Crawford said. “He’d had to dial it down to 93-94 before he got movement. Now the fastball really moves and it’s tough to square up a 98-mph fastball when it is moving the way Gerrit’s does.”
Cole is fiery competitor and sometimes the fire would burn out of control in the past. He was also such a perfectionist that he would stomp around the mound seemingly every time he gave up a hit.
However, Cole has learned to calm down.
“He’s found a way to slow it down when the game speeds up on him,” Burnett said. “As long as he keeps doing that, he's going to be great,”
Examples of that maturity came in Cole’s last two starts before the All-Star break.
Cole gave up three runs in the first three innings to the Cleveland Indians on July 5 as the Pirates fell behind 3-0. Instead of getting flustered, Cole settled down and retied his last 16 batters and Pittsburgh rallied for a 5-3 victory.
Five night later, the St. Louis Cardinals jumped in front 2-0 on Cole and continually fouled off pitches to keep plate appearances alive.
Cole needed to throw 114 pitches over seven innings and managed just three strikeouts yet he shut the Cardinals out over his final five innings and the Pirates again rallied for a 5-2 win.
“He’s got great stuff but what really impressed me was how he found another gear once he got the lead,” said Indians manager Terry Francona, a New Brighton graduate. “You see that more in veteran pitchers than a guy that young. That’s special.”
Everyone in baseball is finding out how special Cole is this year, which was why he was selected to his first All-Star Game. However, in another example of his growing maturity, Cole refuses to bask in individual honors and instead says he is focused on getting the Pirates back to the postseason for a third straight year.
“It’s nice that people recognize what you do and think highly of you, I think everybody wants that,” Cole said. “I don’t want sound dismissive but all that is secondary to being part of a team and helping us win.
“That’s really what it comes down to. It’s a team sport, and if you do well then everyone will be recognized for it, and playing on a team like we have makes it fun.”