I was excited to watch Gerrit Cole pitch on Sunday afternoon. When the Minor League season started, I bought the MiLB.tv package for the first time since it's come into existence, mainly for the purpose of watching Cole and Jameson Taillon pitch this year (I debate buying it every year, but only the teams in the high minors are regularly broadcast and Indianapolis is usually a boring team save a position prospect or two, so I usually decide it's not worth the money). Due to a combination of factors, I missed most of Cole's first three starts, but since I was planning on watching the Pirates on Sunday anyway.
Before I get started, I'll point out that the usual caveats apply here: I'm not a scout, nor do I ever pretend to be one. There are often things that minor league players, prospects in particular, are working on behind the scenes and that's not knowledge that I'm privy to. The Indianapolis announcers, for example, mentioned several times that Cole seemed to be throwing a lot of off-speed pitches on Sunday. That could be because he felt his fastball command was bad, or that could be because the Pirates told him to work on his changeup because he'll need it to succeed at the big league level. Also, my watching was limited to the Indianapolis broadcast, which has a pretty poor viewing angle (think PNC Park before the excellent new centerfield camera) and didn't display the pitch speed (or if they did, didn't do so in a way I could see it in the crappy MiLB.tv iPhone app blown up to iPad size, which left a hanging menu bar covering the top of the screen), which often made it hard to figure out what pitch Cole was throwing. I'm not complaining about these things, mind you. I'm watching the Pirates' best prospect pitch in a minor league game on a futuristic touch screen computer for $20 a year. Life is pretty amazing here in the 21st century. I'm simply making you, the reader, aware of my viewing conditions this afternoon.
Now that that's out of the way, what I can tell you about Cole this afternoon is that his line for the game sums it up pretty well. He went four innings, didn't give up a run, and only allowed one hit, but he also on struck two hitters out and he walked five guys. He threw 85 pitches and only 49 strikes. Of those 85 pitches, 34 came in the fourth inning, when he walked the bases loaded. In that third inning, Louisville hit nine foul balls off of Cole and had zero swinging strikes. Going back through the Gameday notations I count 19 foul balls off of Cole today, compared with only four swinging strikes. That's a really bad ratio for any starter, particularly for one that's supposed to be as dominant as Cole is. That being said, I don't think that Louisville hit one ball squarely all afternoon. All of their outs were soft groundballs or pop-ups or soft liners. The only hit that they had off of Cole was a bunt straight back to Cole by speedster Billy Hamilton that probably would've been an out, had Matt Hague not inexplicably charged in on the ball leaving first base unattended.
Because the broadcast made it difficult to tell pitch from pitch, my best guess is that Cole was focusing on off-speed stuff and had poor command of it, which left hitters waiting on fastballs and able to foul them away all afternoon. Cole didn't really look all that bad until the fourth inning, though he didn't look all that good up to that point, either. After the first two outs of the inning and a long at-bat against Emmanuel Burris that ended up in a walk, Cole just ran out of gas. That happened in his last start around the 90 pitch mark, too, and he didn't have a 30+ pitch inning to deal with in that game.
I don't want to sound too alarmist about this, because as I said, I'm not a scout and there are a lot of things about the start that we don't really know. As hard as Cole was to watch and as ugly as that final line is, I think Cole was probably closer to having a dominant outing than he was to having a truly disastrous one. It honestly seemed like Louisville just sat on Cole's fastball and more or less knew it was coming and they still couldn't hit him hard at any point. Starting around the 1:08 mark (or thereabouts) of last week's Fringe Average podcast there's a discussion of Matt Harvey and why he's exploded onto the scene at the big league level after good-but-not-elite minor league numbers, with one possibly explanation being that the Mets simply had him focusing on different things in the minors and have since unleashed him at the big league level. The point is, though, that no one saw Harvey coming on the way that he has (he was Baseball America's pre-season #54 prospect) because there was something going on behind the scenes that no one was allowed to see. Then, around the 1:15 mark there's talk about a bad outing by Kevin Gausman and how minor leaguers sometimes have trouble pitching around not having their best stuff. I think both of those discussions are relevant to Cole.
The greater point for now, though is this: Gerrit Cole is not ready to pitch at the Major League level. He's not at Triple-A for any reason other than that he needs to be at Triple-A. Cole has the sort of talent that could change this very quickly, but it's absolutely true right now. He'll most likely pitch again on Friday night, which means that I probably won't watch him live, but I'm curious to see how the foul ball to swinging strike ratios change for his next outing. If these control problems early in the season are a result of him working on off-speed stuff, then hopefully the results will start to swing in his favor soon.