First, the bad news: On Sunday, the Pirates placed Gerrit Cole on the disabled list, retroactive to June 4. The good news: His problem is merely shoulder fatigue, and he's expected to miss only two starts.
That won't make it any easier for the Pirates (29-33) to climb above .500 — where they haven't been since April 14 — and back into contention, but in a year where frontline pitchers are beating a path to the operating table for elbow injuries, it comes as a relief that the 23-year-old righty's problem is a comparatively minor one. The Pirates haven't said specifically whether he underwent an MRI, but general manager Neal Huntington did say that the tests they've done on his shoulder indicate that it's structurally sound, which means no tears to cartilage, ligaments or muscles. Thus, the diagnosis of fatigue counts as good news; muscles tire due to overuse, but the pitcher reported his problem to the team after playing catch last Wednesday instead of trying to press through it, and rest should alleviate it.
Manager Clint Hurdle noted that signs of Cole's fatigue had been mounting, with his velocity dropping markedly midway through his last start on Tuesday and his efficiency declining in his recent starts. Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette's Jenn Menendez:
“There’s been some indicators that have popped up that haven’t been the norm if you look at indicators from last year,” Hurdle said.
...“When a player admits it, it’s usually about the third time it happens,” Hurdle said. “Look at pitch per inning. Look at strike percentage. All these things, the number of pitches out of the stretch, versus number of pitches out of the windup.”
Cole hasn't pitched badly this year, putting up a 3.64 ERA through 76 2/3 innings while striking out 8.1 per nine. Even so, in the pitcher-friendly environment of PNC Park, that's just a 98 ERA+. His walk and homer rates are up significantly from his 2013 rookie campaign, from 2.1 per nine to 2.9 per nine for the former, and from 0.5 to 0.9 for the latter. Via that, his FIP has added nearly a run from last year, from 2.91 to 3.81.
Hurdle is onto something when it comes to Cole's efficiency. While the Pirates have kept him on a short leash — he's averaging 100.4 pitches per start this year — he's labored a harder over the past month:
|Through May 7||7||6.71||3.59||14.9|
Cole's ERA has been the same across the split (3.64), and his FIP was actually higher in the early portion than the more recent one (4.16 to 3.57) due to a higher homer rate, but he's pitched into the seventh inning just once in the latter set, and obviously, the team needs to be mindful of the bigger picture.
That's particularly true for a pitcher who was the overall number one pick in the draft in 2011, and who saw his workload increase sharply from 2012 (132 minor league innings) to 2013 (68 minor league innings, 128 1/3 major league innings including postseason). The Pirates did a good job of managing his workload last year, giving him a couple days of extra rest when they could, and keeping him below 100 pitches in all but two of his 21 starts. Still, it's not surprising that the load caught up to Cole, and given the increased risk that high-velocity pitchers have of ulnar collateral ligament problems, the Pirates can count their lucky stars that his problem manifested itself in this way.
In Cole's absence, the Pirates recalled Jeff Locke from Triple-A Indianapolis to make Sunday's start against the Brewers, and pushed Charlie Morton's start back a day. Locke held Milwaukee to three hits, one walk and one run over seven innings and 75 pitches, but Pittsburgh couldn't plate a run of its own against Yovani Gallardo and the bullpen, and lost 1-0. The Pirates are now 3-10 against the Brewers, 28-23 against everyone else.
Locke made 30 starts with a 3.52 ERA for the Bucs last year, even cracking the All-Star team on the basis of a stellar 2.15 ERA in the first half. Alas, he was rocked for an 8.59 ERA over his final seven starts, led the league in bases on balls (84, a whopping 4.5 per nine) and prior to Sunday had been hit hard in his lone appearance for the big club back on May 5. If there's a silver lining beyond the relatively minor nature of Cole's problem, it's that Locke could provide an upgrade to a rotation that ranks second-to-last in the league in quality start rate (40 percent) and third-to-last in ERA (4.40), and that's already taken hits to its depth via the loss of top prospect Jameson Taillon to Tommy John surgery and the recent release of Wandy Rodriguez. Morton is the only starter with an ERA+ above 100, and after Cole, the next-best mark is that of retread Edinson Volquez (83, on a 4.27 ERA). It's reasonable to think that if Locke pitches well, Volquez, Brandon Cumpton or Francisco Liriano could lose their spot once Cole returns — which, hopefully, won't be long.