Hit and Run: Gerrit Cole keeps rolling, tough times for Arizona at catcher
1. Young King Cole?
Given that he was the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft, it shouldn't be a surprise that Gerrit Cole is burnishing his credentials as a true ace with every passing start. On Monday night, the 24-year-old righty overcame a shaky first inning to put another strong turn in the books, allowing five hits, two walks and two unearned runs and striking out nine in Pittsburgh's 4–3 win over the Giants.
Cole has yet to allow more than three runs in any of his 11 starts this season. Including his final four regular-season starts last year, that's the majors' second-longest active streak:
Limiting the stats to this season, Cole is all over the National League leader board. His 1.90 ERA ranks fifth in the league; Miller and Greinke are tied for first at 1.48. His 2.41 FIP ranks second behind Max Scherzer's 1.77, his 82% quality-start rate and 10.0 strikeouts per nine are both fifth, and his 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio is eighth. All of those numbers represent a significant jump forward from his 2013–14 performance: a 3.45 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.5 K/BB ratio and 71% quality-start rate.
Several things about Cole's performance stand out. His current ledger includes five unearned runs, two more than in the previous two years combined; his 2.54 RA/9 more closely resembles his FIP. On the other hand, he's doing all of this with a .320 batting average on balls in play, and his career mark is .317, suggesting he could be even stingier with better defensive support, or at least better luck. Within the small sample splits, he's held batters to a .196/.263/.235 line with runners in scoring position despite a .323 BABIP under such circumstances because he's whiffed 36% of them, well above his already-strong 28% overall rate.
Perhaps most impressive thus far is Cole's efficiency. Recall that when he came up in 2013, the Pirates encouraged a more contact-centric approach so that he could avoid being forced to the sidelines by workload restrictions. Yet even with the uptick from a 23% strikeout rate in '13–'14 to this year's 28%, his pitches per plate appearance are virtually unchanged, from 3.76 prior to 3.78 this year.
If Cole keeps pitching like this, he'll wind up in the Cy Young conversation. Meanwhile, he's helped the Pirates win nine of their past 11 to climb to 27–24. While they're still in third place in the NL Central, six games behind the Cardinals, they're only one in back of the second-place Cubs and only 1 1/2 back in the Wild Card race.
• POWER RANKINGS: Pirates jump into top 10, Cardinals in first place
2. Tuffy Breaks
After the Diamondbacks traded Miguel Montero to the Cubs last December, it was something of a surprise that they went into the season with Tuffy Gosewisch—a 31-year-old career backup who hit .225/.242/.310 in 132 PA last year—atop their depth chart. Below him were multi-position backup Jordan Pacheco, last-legs veteran Gerald Laird, Rule 5 pick Oscar Hernandez and power-hitting prospect Peter O'Brien.
Alas, that depth chart has been shaken up considerably of late. Gosewisch left Arizona's May 27 game after injuring his left knee trying to beat out an infield grounder. He hit the base awkwardly and has been diagnosed with a complete tear of his ACL, which will require season-ending surgery. But while the D-Backs won't much miss Gosewisch's particular combination of predictably terrible offense (.211/.261/.281 in 138 PA), solid defense and whatever game-calling skill he brings to a staff that ranks 13th in the league in run prevention (4.56 runs per game) and 11th in ERA+ (94), they won't like what's been left in his wake.
The new No. 1 appears to be Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whom the Snakes signed to a minor-league deal in early May after he was released by the Marlins despite having about $14 million left on his three-year, $21 million deal. The 30-year-old former first-round pick hit just .209/.310/.351 in 468 PA for the Fish, including a 4-for-41 start to the year. Not only was he 0.3 wins below replacement in that span, but he was also the majors' worst pitch-framer, according to Baseball Prospectus, at 11.7 runs below average, though to be fair, he's been closer to average (-1.4 runs per 7,000 pitches) for his career.
The options aren't much better behind him. After Saltalamacchia is Pacheco, who has hit .254/.308/.324 in 157 PA over the past two seasons in Arizona, but he has just 48 career starts at catcher compared to 90 at third base and 95 at first. Within that small-squatting sample, he's seven runs below average via Defensive Runs Saved and 9.2 below average per 7,000 pitches in the framing department, not to mention with just a 12% caught-stealing rate. Hernandez, a 21-year-old who was plucked from the Rays, has never played above Class A and has been on the 60-day disabled list since March 27 due to a broken hamate in his left hand; in mid-May, he suffered a setback when scar tissue popped loose, so he isn't close to returning. Laird is on the 60-day DL retroactive to April 9 due to lower back spasms.
As for O'Brien—a 24-year-old former second-round pick in 2012 who was acquired from the Yankees last summer in the Martin Prado trade—he's hitting a sizzling .337/.377/.641 with 12 homers in 199 PA at Triple A Reno. His power has drawn comparisons to Mark Trumbo, but prospect hounds don't believe he will stick behind the plate, which is why despite his 34 homers and combined .271/.316/.594 line last year, he hasn't cracked any major prospect lists. While that trajectory from behind the plate seems to parallel another ex-Yankees prospect in Jesus Montero, note that despite the question marks about his lousy receiving skills, Montero spent three years ranked among the game's top 10 prospects via both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus.
As to O'Brien's current trajectory, a bout of throwing "yips" this spring led the Diamondbacks used him exclusively in the outfield corners with a brief spot of first base until May 6. While he caught 11 games last month, MLB.com's Steve Gilbert, the Diamondbacks' beat reporter, reported on Sunday that the team has decided to make O'Brien a full-time outfielder. On the other hand, ESPN's Jim Bowden wrote on Monday:
After moving O'Brien from catcher to leftfield earlier this spring, the Diamondbacks reversed their decision recently, and have to be glad they did. O'Brien is making significant strides defensively and merely has to be adequate behind the plate considering he'd be a huge offensive upgrade at the position for the Diamondbacks.
It appears that Bowden may be behind the curve. Via AZCentral.com's Nick Piecoro, the decision to shed the tools of ignorance in favor of full-time outfielding was O'Brien's, as reported via the team's Twitter account.
If there's good news about Arizona's catching situation, it's that they're enjoying favorable returns with regards to 2012 first-round pick Stryker Trahan. Chosen out of a Louisiana high school, the lefty-swinging Trahan hit well in his first two professional seasons, but he sank to .198/.264/.367 with a 36% strikeout rate at Class A South Bend last year, with the team moving him from catcher to corner outfielder. Demoted one level and returned to catching, he closed the season on a higher note. Trahan's numbers this year aren't all that impressive (.234/.285/.461 with seven homers and a 28% strikeout rate in 166 PA for A-level Kane County), particularly for a player repeating in the Midwest league, but MLB.com's Jim Callis reported that he did homer three times last week, and he’s still just 21 years old.
Reports on Trahan’s catching skills aren’t glowing, to say the least, and he won’t help the Diamondbacks anytime soon. But his given name is still Stryker Louis Trahan, which trumps James Benjamin "Tuffy" Gosewisch if we’re going by the birth certificate.
3. Teixeira topples King Felix
While the comeback of Alex Rodriguez has gotten more attention for obvious reasons, the rebound of Mark Teixeira from a stretch of three injury-wracked seasons is worth noting. On Monday, Teixeria's grand slam off Felix Hernandez broke open what was already a 3–0 game in the Yankees' favor, sending New York to a rainy 7–2 win in Seattle.
The homer was Teixeira's 15th of the year, tying him with Josh Donaldson for second in the league behind Nelson Cruz's 18. It was his ninth career grand slam and his first since June 3, 2013; the four RBIs left him tied with Donaldson for the league lead as well. The 35-year-old switch-hitter is now batting .241/.358/.566, up from last year's anemic .216/.313/.398 and a .229/.320/.431 combined line from '12 to '14 while missing more than 200 games due to wrist, leg and back injuries.
On the other side of the ledger, the seven runs surrendered by Hernandez were three more than he had allowed in any start this year; his 4 2/3-inning outing, which included six hits and a season-high five walks, shot his ERA from 1.91 to 2.63. Despite those numbers, he's allowed seven homers in 40 2/3 innings over his last six starts after giving up just 16 in 236 innings last year. Hernandez hasn't allowed 20 in a season since 2007, when he was 21 years old. Thanks to his swollen homer rate (1.0 per nine) he’s carrying a 3.44 FIP, higher than any season since '08.
While it's inadvisable to put too much stock in individual batter-pitcher matchup stats due to sample sizes, it's worth noting the history between Teixiera and Hernandez. Teixeira owns a career .303/.382/.636 line with six homers in 76 plate appearances against Hernandez, the most homers the Seattle ace has allowed to any hitter (Cruz is second with five), and the second-most the Yankees' first baseman has hit against any pitcher, behind the seven hit off Bruce Chen.
That said, those balls over the wall are mostly water under the bridge. It was the two combatants' first encounter since June 9, 2013, the first ending in a hit since May 11, 2012, and the first ending in a homer since Sept. 12, 2011. Teixera also homered off Hernandez earlier in '11, and prior to that once in '06 and twice in '08.