Game 64: Pirates 8 Giants 2

Let's start with the warm-and-fuzzies: Gerrit Cole took the mound in his Major League debut tonight. The first three pitches hew threw went 96 mph, 96 mph, and 98 mph. They were a called strike and two swinging strikes. There were 30,000+ at PNC Park tonight, and they exploded with every pitch. Cole hit some rough spots early on and didn't strike a ton of hitters out, but he absolutely cruised through the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth innings tonight. He threw nine pitches in the third, five in the fourth, ten in the fifth, and 14 in the sixth. In that sixth, he struck out Buster Posey with a slider that made him look absolutely silly. He threw his fastball 95-97 and could crank it up to 99 all night. He painted the strike zone with that fastball for the first six innings. As the ridiculous cherry on the sundae, he hit a two-run single in his first Major League at-bat even though it would appear that to the best of anyone's knowledge, he hasn't had a hit in a game since high school (h/t James Santelli for that ridiculous fact). 

The Pirates broke the bats out for him, too. Andrew McCutchen turned on the jets to score from first base on a Garrett Jones single + Hunter Pence awkward-error, then Starling Marte hit a solo homer and Pedro Alvarez closed out the scoring by mashing a two-run job that left Gerrit Cole pretty impressed (he was being interviewed by the broadcast booth at the time). Tony Watson and Vin Mazzaro got Cole out of his jam in the seventh (well, Mazzaro got everyone out of Cole and Watson's jam, really) and Bryan Morris slammed the door shut with two scoreless, one-hit innings, whiffing four Giants in the process.  

In one nice, tidy little package, this game was everything that the Pirates are supposed to be right now. Gerrit Cole made a strong and exciting start. Andrew McCutchen two hits, scored twice, and flashed some ridiculous speed scoring on Pence's error. Starling Marte hit a home run. Pedro Alvarez  crushed a home run. There was a huge, fired-up crowd at PNC Park on a Tuesday night. This win was a win driven by exciting young baseball players that are going to be Pirates for quite some time. This was just flat-out fun in the way that Pirate baseball just hasn't been for a long, long time. 

Now let's get to the nitty-gritty with Cole. This start was more or less what Cole's been doing in his last couple minor league starts: throwing lots and lots of fastballs for strikes, resulting in low strikeout numbers but lots of weak contact. This start was more of a start to dream on than it was to drool over. Until the seventh inning, Cole threw his fastball almost exactly where he wanted it all night. He threw it with incredible velocity (it averaged 97 mph tonight and topped out at 100) until the very last pitch, which popped at 99 mph. Cole wasn't dominant in the way that you'd expect a Justin Verlander or a Stephen Strasburg to be dominant, but it was easy to watch him tonight and see how he could become that pitcher. 

Cole a ton of fastballs tonight. That was particularly true the first time through the order and less true after that, but even later in the game he started almost every hitter with a fastball. PitchFX (link in the above paragraph) shows that 65 of his 81 pitches were fastballs, which is a touch over 80% of his pitches. That's a crazy amount of fastballs; Verlander throws his fastball 55% of the time. Strasburg throws his fastball 64% of the time. You can see how Cole could get into trouble with this approach: the Giants didn't hit any balls hard in the first two innings, but they threatened in both innings because balls simply found holes. I suspect that Cole can get away with this for another start or two, depending on opposition, but it's not going to take long for teams to look at sit fastball. Still, Cole's fastball tonight was awesome. Even though the Giants knew it was coming by the end of the night, he got seven swinging strikes on it (for point of reference: this is a lot of swinging strikes on 65 fastballs) and 30 of the 65 fastballs he threw were strikes that the Giants didn't put into play. 

He only threw maybe 14 sliders and two changeups tonight (I think the real number might be 13 and three, but 14 and two is how Brooks has it classified for now and I'll stick with that), and as mentioned, he used them almost exclusively when he got ahead in the count. I thought it was a great game strategy by Martin/Searage/Hurdle (or whoever it was that came up with it) to help Cole in his debut; throw fastballs for strikes to stay ahead in the count, because his fastball is so good and so unfamiliar to the Giants that he probably didn't need any more tonight. Staying ahead in the count makes the fastball even more dangerous, because he could have put it through the figurative eye of the needle tonight. Cole can't keep throwing this many fastballs going forward, but I sincerely doubt that that will be the plan anyway; they got the big first start out of the way, they got his nerves under control, and they got a really, really positive result for him to build from. Going forward, he won't have much of a choice other than to start mixing his slider in first, then his change and curve. He won't be able to start every at-bat out with a fastball and get ahead of pretty much every single hitter exclusively on heat. Once that happens, I think more strikeouts are going to be inevitable. Even with four of every five pitches tonight being heat, he threw some pretty notable off-speed pitches. In the first inning, he threw eight straight fastballs to open the game, then he threw Buster Posey an 0-2 changeup that broke in on his hands and resulted in a lazy pop-out to center. He threw a nasty slider with some huge break on it to Hunter Pence in the first inning, too, and Pence barely checked his swing on it even though the ball was nowhere near the strike zone by the time Russell Martin got to it. The slider that he struck Posey out on in the sixth was a ridiculous pitch.

UPDATED: Russell Martin said after the game that Cole threw mostly curves tonight, not sliders, because that's what he's been throwing in the minors lately and so it's what he was comfortable with. The classification systems grabbed them mostly as sliders, though, and I've seen his curve described as a "slurve" in the past. In any case, his slider was supposed to be his real strikeout pitch, so you can chalk that up for another reason that his strikeouts are down for now. The slider vs. curve issue is a pretty interesting one to talk about in depth at a later date; I remember reading some rumblings in the past that the Rays slowly transitioned David Price from a slider to a curve in the interest of long-term health and I wonder if that's not what's happening here. No matter what the reason that Cole's going to his curve more regularly, it's a point for a longer discussion somewhere else down the road. In any case, I'm still sticking to the same general assessment that Cole was working with a less than full arsenal tonight to emphasize strikes and that pulling more pitches out of the repertoire as the season goes and he gets more comfortable on is going to generate whiffs. 

This is Day One of Gerrit Cole. Every Pirate fan can see why the Pirates wanted Cole first in the draft, even though Trevor Bauer's college numbers were better. Every Pirate fan can see why scouts drool over Cole even when the minor league numbers come up just shy of dominant.  Cole's not quite there yet, but it was pretty plain to see tonight that he's heading the right way. That's enough for now. All good stories need a beginning, and this was a pretty solid hook.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.