What should Gerrit Cole’s workload be in 2013?

With Monday's news that Wandy Rodriguez had received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow, the looming controversy over Gerrit Cole's possible demotion was deflated a bit. The best-case scenario is that Rodriguez would be back in August, but I think it's more realistic to assume that he'll be out longer than that. That means that Cole will be a member of the rotation indefinitely, and probably through the end of the season. 

When discussing the possible Cole demotion, I mentioned that one reason to send him down would be to get a better handle on monitoring his workload. Sicne it seems likely now that that won't happen, let's take a longer look at how Cole's been used this year and how the Pirates can avoid the Strasburg Dilemma. Cole is starting tomorrow afternoon in the 83rd game of the season. Since there will be 80 games left after today, that gives us a nice, even 16 turns of the rotation. If Cole makes all 16 starts, he'll have made 20 starts with the Pirates. He has, thus far, averaged just a tad over six innings per start (24 1/3 innings in four starts), so let's say that in 20 starts with the Pirates he'd throw 125 innings. Mixed with the 68 minor league innings that he's already thrown, and that's 193 innings on the season for the 22-year old before the playoffs even start.

That seems like a lot of innings even before you say that Cole threw 132 innings across three minor league levels last year. The Verducci Effect — that is, the idea that there's a rigid progression of number of innings pitched that young pitchers should adhere early in their careers to if they want to avoid injury — has been thoroughly debunked by the sabermetric corners of the internet, which is why the Nationals got into so much trouble for grounding Strasburg before the season even ended last year. All innings are not created equal, all pitchers are not created equal, and assuming that they are is a bad idea. Still, the idea that Cole could almost hit 200 innings with a 60+ inning increase at the age of 22 is something that we should at least be talking about, even if we don't start from the assumption that it's bad. 

It's important to note first that the Pirates don't seem concerned with Cole's workload. Neal Huntington said as much last week, more or less directly addressing the idea that Cole would get shut down for a workload-related purpose. You can already see that they're proceeding cautiously with him. It seems logical to assume that Cole will be held to the approximate 100 pitch limit that Jeff Locke's been on all year (he mostly was in the minor leagues; he only topped 100 pitches in half of his 12 starts and five of those six outings saw him between 101 and 106 pitches, with only one start going to 115). Between off-days and the team being cautious after he was struck with a line drive in his start against the Angels, he had a full week between his third and fourth starts and he's now got six days between his fourth and fifth starst. You can see how inserting Jeanmar Gomez or AJ Burnett back into the rotation next week will probably keep Cole from having to start Thursday/Tuesday, and doing that will shave a start from Cole before the All-Star Break. That already gets us down to 15 remaining starts instead of 16. They'll likely be similarly cautious after the break for as long as they can (and they can be so long as they have six starters), which means that just because there are 16 five-game segments in an 80-game span doesn't mean Cole will start 16 more times. I'm thinking that 13 is probably a better guess, and that takes us down to around 175 innings on the season. That already feels much more palateable. 

For further comfort, we can add in that Cole's mechanics seem sound (that was part of the reason he was so highly coveted in the draft despite his non-dominant college numbers) and that he's certainly built like a guy that can eat innings. It's also worth considering that the Pirates had him throwing mostly fastballs, both with Indianapolis and in his first two starts in Pittsburgh. This was partially to help him adjust to the change in fastball plane, but it also has the effect of making those innings less stressful than "normal" innings that would see him use more breaking balls. 

None of this means that Cole will or won't get hurt, of course. Every pitcher's arm is its own unique blend of mechanics and biology and crazy past abuses foisted and every pitcher has a different breaking point. For every Stephen Strasburg, there's a Justin Verlander (Verlander went from ~130 innings in his first minor league season to 186 innings in his first big league season and he's never looked back)I do think that it's reasonable to take Huntington's statement about Cole's usage at face value; given the cautious way that the Pirates are using him in the Majors and his fastball-heavy approach early in the season, I don't see a ton of reason to be concerned with keeping him in the rotation through the end of the season, even if he ends up with an innings increase of 40 or 50 innings.

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.

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