Just a little over two years ago, I remember bemoaning the lack of an obvious franchise player at the top of the 2011 draft. Neal Huntington's goal with the Pirates was obviously to stockpile talent, but they picked fourth in a 2009 draft that featured Stephen Strasburg at the top and they picked second in a 2010 draft that had Bryce Harper. The year that they got the top pick, there was mostly a lack of consensus as to whether the Pirates should take Danny Hultzen (more polish and great college stats, but a lower ceiling), Trevor Bauer (great college stats, but unconventional delivery and conditioning methods to go with a bit of a … strong personality), Anthony Rendon (at one point seemingly the slam dunk pick at 1-1 before injuries hurt his stock), Dylan Bundy (great high school arm with concerns about ridiculous pitch counts and signability), and Gerrit Cole. The Pirates went with Cole but more or less admitted up front that they made the pick with projection in mind; they thought Cole would be the best pitcher in the future, not that he was necessarily the best pitcher at the time.
It seems crazy that only 30 months have passed since then. When the 2012 season started, Bauer was Baseball America's #9 prospect, Bundy was #10, and Cole was #12. Bauer had racked up ridiculous strikeout numbers in High-A and Double-A before Cole had really even signed in 2011, and he made his big league debut in late June of 2012. Bundy, meanwhile, put up ridiculous numbers all through minors. He made eight starts with Single-A Delmarva, 12 with High-A Frederick, and three with Double-A Bowie before earning a September call-up to the Orioles during last year's playoff race. Cole plugged away in a borderline non-descript fashion. He was good in High-A last year and he was good in Double-A, but mostly people seemed to mention that he was rarely dominant, that his changeup wasn't quite ready yet, that his fastball was flat.
By the end of last year, Bauer had so frustrated the Diamondbacks that they shipped him off to Cleveland as part of the Shin-Soo Choo trade and all they really got in return was Didi Gregorius. Bundy entered 2013 as Baseball America's #2 prospect but didn't even make one start before his elbow went out. Gerrit Cole made his big league debut in June and held his own for three months before dominating in September, winning some huge games for the Pirates and a Rookie of the Month award. He made his first playoff start five days ago and silenced a lineup that had teed off on AJ Burnett to take a 1-0 series lead less than a day before. All of this lead up to Cole getting (and deserving) the nod over Burnett to start the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS.
If there is a positive aspect to the strong first half and second half disasters of 2011 and 2012, it's that it's been possible to watch this first playoff Pirate team in 21 years assemble itself, bit by bit. For me, that's added an extra dimension of pleasure to watching the Pirates this year; I know how this team was assembled, I've watched how the front office has responded to challenges presented by the last two years, and now that the Pirates are a contending team, it's easy to look at them as a whole and say, "Oh! That's how these individual parts fit together!"
In April and May I'd watch Cole through weird, grainy MiLB.tv feeds without reliable radar gun readings and wonder why he couldn't strike anyone out and if it was something I should be concerned with. When he made his debut in June at PNC Park and I could see him in full HD with a centerfield camera and a gun, I understood why scouts always raved over him. For three months, nearly every start would contain an inning or two when his fastball, slider, and changeup aligned like some kind of eclipse and even though Cole was solid pretty much every time out, every start would end with me wanting to see more. It finally happened on September 9th in Texas, and there's been no turning back since then.
Anyway, let's talk about the specifics of starting Cole over Burnett in the biggest game of the year. The reality is that Burnett had an excellent year, but he had a few implosion starts like his start in Game 1 that's caused Pirate fans (or anyone, really) to not quite realize just how good Burnett has been in 2013. Everyone makes a huge deal about Burnett's numbers in Busch Stadium this year and last, but that's the sort of small sample size thinking that gets managers into trouble; Burnett has been great against the Cards in PNC in the same timespan and while PNC obviously offers him an advantage, it's probably not as big of an advantage as you think. All of that being said, I don't think that this decision was rocket science. When Burnett's not quite right, he struggles against lefties much in the same way that Charlie Morton can, the Cardinals lineup is loaded with lefties, and there's absolutely zero room for error in this game. Cole has made 20 starts for the Pirates this year, and they've only lost one of them by more than two runs (a 4-0 loss to the Brewers at the end of August). We've been over Cole's dominant September stats before, and now we can add a dominating performance against the Cardinals in Game 2 to that list. One team saw Cole two starts in a row this year. That was the Brewers. In the first game, they had 10 hits and scored four runs off of Cole in 7 1/3 innings. He struck out four and walked one. In the second game, Cole went six innings, struck out five, walked one, and held the Brewers to two runs on five hits. I don't know if there's an advantage to be gained in seeing Cole twice in a row like this, because when a guy has the arsenal that Cole does, you're at his mercy when he brings it.
The larger point is that while it really is a cool moment of fulfillment for Pirates' fans to see the first overall pick from just two years ago starting a decisive Game 5 in the NLDS, it's much more important that Cole is the best choice to start this game. That's not to say Burnett couldn't do it today, just that I think there's less chance that Cole gets blasted out of the game the way Burnett did last Thursday and I think Cole is a little more capable of putting the team on his back and keeping them in the game against Wainwright, if necessary. Neither of those things are a slam dunk, of course, because nothing is guaranteed in a do-or-die game. Still, we spent a lot of time over the summer discussing whether the Pirates had put their best roster forward while they were carrying around roster driftwood, and their best starting nine today includes Gerrit Cole.