Photo: Jon Dawson
Gerrit Cole entered 2016 as the Pirates ace and left 2016 as an injury risk and a guy who struggled to hold a sub 4.00 ERA.
Now that Taillon has looks great on the mound, the conversation has shifted away from how good Cole is to who is the true ace in Pittsburgh.
It is unfortunate that fans need to make a competition out of everything. This year the Pirates have a real chance to have a great young rotation, and all that can be discussed is if Taillon is the player that the fans want Cole to be.
Is Gerrit Cole still an ace? Well, you can decide for yourself. I think he is, but it all comes down to how you want to define what an ‘ace’ is. Either way, Gerrit Cole was not an ace in 2016. And him being an ace is pivotal towards the Pirates success. Neal Huntington even said this past offseason that “There’s no coincidence that we were good when Gerrit was good.” But, will he be an ace in 2017?
No matter how you break it down, Gerrit Cole’s 2016 was definitely not that of an ace. A 3.88 ERA is absolutely not what you want from your ‘ace’ pitcher. However, he is still just 26 years old. A bad season at 25 in which he was injured throughout, should not be enough to have your status as an ace thrown out.
So why was 2016 so much different than 2015? In 2016 Cole had made 3 trips to the disabled list, and his first injury occurred in spring. It is likely he was never fully healthy at any point in the season. In the spring, he was suffering from inflammation in his ribs, and then over the course of the regular season he was placed on the disabled list twice for inflammation in his right elbow and once for a strained triceps.
Elbow inflammation is a scary thing. Jameson Taillon started with elbow inflammation before it progressed to Tommy John surgery. Elbow inflammation doesn’t always end in Tommy John surgery, but it is a scary sign that the worst is yet to come. Hopefully, for Gerrit Cole’s and the Pirates sake, his elbow is completely healed and he won’t have to go under the needle in 2017.
Gerrit Cole can touch high 90s with his fastball. Last year he had the 8th fastest fastball in the league for a starter at 95.2 mph. But, what turns him from a flamethrower into an ace, is his slider. In 2015, Cole’s slider was responsible for 41% of his strikeouts, and opponents hit just .200 against it. In 2016, that dipped to 31.6% and .275 respectively.
Last season, Cole’s biggest problem was getting out lefties. He allowed a .371 wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) to lefties last season, where as in 2015 he limited them to a .266 wOBA. To help put that into perspective, last year the league average wOBA was .318. So Cole went from about 50 points above average to 50 points below average in one year. This has never been an issue in the past. Cole has always been great against both lefties and righties, but now he has seemed to have developed quite an issue with lefties.
Cole’s slider was his biggest issue against lefties last year. As you can see in the image below, his slider remained elite against righties but took a big hit against lefties.
The image above shows his issues with the pitch last year. In 2015 Cole’s slider was responsible for a .151 AVG against lefties and almost doubled to a .294 average in 2016. That’s like going from facing Gerrit Cole as a batter to Starling Marte.
The GIF above shows swings against Gerrit Cole’s slider. In 2015, the heatmap shows he had more swings in the bottom of the strike zone. In 2016, hitters started to swing at his slider when it was more in the middle of the plate, probably due to the fact that he threw it more in the middle of the plate. Not a good combination.
His slider has also lost movement. His slider would more often break inside on hitters, but in 2016 it stayed out of the middle of the plate. That is concerning, but I think at least some of that can be disregarded as just side effects of not being healthy. Still, it is important that he gets his movement back on his slider or hitters will be able to crush it like in 2016.
Here is another GIF that shows how often lefties swung at his slider. As you can see, they had a much easier time laying off of it down out of the strike zone in 2016 than they did in 2015.
This GIF shows the percentage of times that left handed hitters swung and missed at a pitch in the zone. As you can clearly see, in 2015 down and in was a huge issue for hitters. In 2016, they were able to lay off everything.
Sliders are not typically meant to be used as an out pitch against lefties. But it has worked for him in the past, so there was no need to change it. A good third pitch to neutralize lefties, like a changeup, would certainly help propel Cole back to being an elite pitcher.
One of the stats that took a huge hit in 2016 was his K-BB%. In 2016 his K% decreased 5% and his BB% increased 1.8% compared to 2015. In total his K-BB was 12.3%. A large drop from his 19% in 2015. He went from being in the top 15% to the bottom 40% in just one year.
There might be some room for optimism. Gerrit was likely not fully healthy at any point last year, and that could be the reason his slider had a drop in movement. He also had the 4th highest BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) in the league, just behind Mike Pelfrey. His slider of course had a .393 BABIP, an increase from his .319 the previous year. Its pretty unlikely that his BABIP will stay that high in 2017 as his career BABIP is .316.
In 2015, in 2 strike counts Cole limited hitters to a .199 OBP and struck out hitters 46.6% and a .286 BABIP. In 2016, that moved all the way to a .302 OBP and a 38.4% strikeout percentage and a .412 BABIP. His average exit velocity went from 86.5% in 2015 to 87.7%. That is such a small increase that I think its highly likely that his .412 BABIP was just a case of bad luck.
For Gerrit to improve in 2017, he needs to get his 2015 slider back. The 2016 version just isn’t going to cut it. If he could improve his changeup and throw that effectively, he could be even better than he was in 2015.
Depth Charts, a combination of ZiPS and Steamer projections, has him projected at 31 games, a 3.57 ERA, 8.26 K/9, and a 2.38 BB/9. I think Gerrit is capable of at least this. As long as he gets his slider back he should be around a 3.00 ERA pitcher and even if he doesn’t, I think he is at worst a 3.50 ERA pitcher.
Gerrit will never be the ace that Pirates fans want without his slider. The high 90s heat with a meh slider just makes him a rich mans Nathan Eovaldi. I am optimistic that good health and Ray Searage can help Gerrit and get his slider back and become a dominant pitcher again in 2017.