The Pittsburgh Pirates are starting right-handed pitching prospect Gerrit Cole against the San Francisco Giants today. Pirates fans (and fantasy owners) have been waiting for Cole ever since his days at UCLA. What can we expect? Let's take a look.
Cole was a first round pick in 2008 out of high school in Orange, California, selected by the Yankees with the 28th-overall pick. However, he was dead-set on attending college at UCLA and never seriously considered signing with New York.
His career there for the Bruins was successful: he posted a 3.49 ERA with a 104/38 K/BB in 85 innings as a freshman, a 3.37 ERA with a 153/52 K/BB in 123 innings as a sophomore, and a 3.31 ERA with a 119/24 K/BB in 114 innings as a junior.
These were all very solid campaigns, although scouts felt he didn't always pitch up to his full potential and he was frequently out-shone by teammate Trevor Bauer. Many still preferred Cole to Bauer however, and the Pirates made Gerrit the first-overall selection in the 2011 draft, signing him to an $8,000,000 bonus.
Cole opened 2012 with High-A Bradenton in the Florida State League, posting a 2.55 ERA with a 69/21 K/BB in 67 innings with 53 hits allowed. Promoted to Double-A Altoona at mid-season, he posted a 2.90 ERA with a 60/23 K/BB in 59 innings. He made one start for Triple-A Indianapolis, then returned to Indy to open 2013. Through 12 starts there he's posted a 2.91 ERA with a 47/28 K/BB in 68 innings, allowing just 44 hits.
Cole is a 6-4, 240 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born September 8, 1990. As you would expect given his size and draft pedigree, Cole has serious arm strength, getting his four-seam fastball to 96-100 MPH and his two-seam sinker into the 92-95 range. His slider draws credit as a plus pitch, his changeup is solid, and he'll throw some softer curveballs occasionally. He's durable and has had no problems holding up to a full workload in both college and pro ball. When everything is right with Cole, he throws quality strikes with four pitches and looks like a number one starter.
But everything isn't always right. Despite the glowing reports, the whole is not always equal to the sum of the parts and Cole will have occasional outings where he gets lit up. His delivery is clean but lacks deception, and quality hitters sometimes take him apart if his location is off. He's kept his ERA very solid in pro ball and has held hitters to low batting averages (just .190 this year for example), but his K/IP ratio this year in Triple-A is not impressive. That's a sabermetric caution flag.
To be honest, Cole is something of an enigma to me. I've seen him look like an unbeatable ace, but I've also seen him look like a fourth starter who teases with plus stuff but can't put hitters away consistently. The loss of strikeouts in Triple-A concerns me, not so much for fundamentalist stathead reasons, but rather because it fits into the on-going narrative of uncertainty about Cole.
Despite these questions, Cole is undoubtedly one of the best pitching prospects in the game and a good bet for long-term success. It will be very interesting to see how he adapts to the National League, and how it adapts to him. Key factors to watch for in his debut: how consistent is his location? Do the hitters seem like they see his pitches well? As we've seen with Kevin Gausman of the Orioles, major league hitters can teach you things that minor league hitters can't. Sometimes the trial by fire is unavoidable.