By Jason Shetler
The 2015 season was not only Gerrit Cole’s personal best, but was the best by a Pirates starter in quite sometime. In 32 starts that year, Cole put up a 2.60 ERA, an ERA+ of 149, a 4.5 WAR and was a 19-game winner (if you still put stock in wins). That terrific work was good enough for him to finish fourth in the NL Cy Young voting.
Cole was looking to build off his strong 2015 campaign, but injuries played a significant part last year. His first trip to the disabled list was in June, because of a right triceps strain, while the other was in September, due to right elbow inflammation. Cole was limited to 21 starts in 2016, posting a 3.88 ERA and a 109 ERA+. The Fielding Independent Pitching however was more respectable at 3.33.
Now fully recovered, the stuff is looking more like vintage Cole, even better, as a matter of fact. In five April outings, his average fastball velocity is at 96.3 mph, which is second best among NL starters behind only Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets. According to Statcast, batters have an average Exit Velocity of 89.2 mph off Cole, lower than the MLB average at 89.6 mph. FanGraphs’ Pitch Values measures how effective pitchers are with their offerings, and according to those metrics, Cole’s slider and changeup are both above average. He is actually throwing his changeup more now than ever before at 13.2%, with an average velocity of 89.0 mph, second highest behind Syndergaard, while slider velocity is at 88.3 mph, seventh best in the NL.
The Pirates rotation has performed well for the most part in April, and the biggest reason has been limiting the free passes. While Ivan Nova’s excellent control is a huge factor, the control has been outstanding for Cole as well in the early going of 2017. So far, Cole is posting a 1.8 BB/9, thanks in part to throwing first pitch strikes 67.7% of the time, better than the 60.3% mark he put up last season. The swing and miss rate was also down for him in 2016 at 8.5%, but that percentage is back up to 9.6%, which is right around his career rate of 9.5%. If Cole can maintain the stuff he has shown in April, and is able to return to his 2015 form, then it would obviously be a big shot in the arm for the Pirates, especially with Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl all in their first full seasons in a big league rotation.