It must be frustrating for the Pittsburgh Pirates to cast their gaze toward Houston. The Pirates selected Gerrit Cole first overall in the 2011 amateur draft. They nursed him through a dominant minor league career and brought him to the majors in 2013 at the age of 22 thinking they had a future ace on their hands. Cole and the Pirates had some good years together, including an All-Star season in which he finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2015, but he never became that elite starter he projected to be. As Pittsburgh began a rebuild in earnest this offseason, they cashed in their chips, trading a pitcher who was at the center of the best Pirates teams in the last 25 years, but was still just 27 years old.
With that in mind, it’s easy to understand the Pirates’ likely frustration. After all, Cole just had a better two-start run in his first two outings with the Astros than he did at any time in his five years with the Pirates. Their erstwhile division rivals effectively stole Cole, and now they might be making him the ace he never was in Pittsburgh.
Cole was electric in his Astros debut, tossing seven shutout innings, allowing five hits while striking out 11 and walking none. He backed that up with another 7-inning, 11-strikeout performance, this time allowing one run on two hits and three walks. All told, that’s 22 strikeouts against three walks with a 0.64 ERA and 0.71 WHIP across his first 14 innings in Houston. In his entire five-year run with the Pirates, he had six double-digit strikeout games. He’s 2-for-2 with the Astros.
If there’s any solace for the Pirates, it’s possible Cole had to go to Houston to fully unlock his potential. The Astros have an earned reputation of teasing the best out of their pitchers by indulging their curiosities with their aggressive analytics staff. The greatest success story is likely Charlie Morton, who spent seven of the first nine years of his career with the Pirates. He joined the Astros last year, and they immediately worked on his game. Morton had never thrown his curveball more than 24.6% of the time with the Pirates, while his sinker usage was at 57.3% or more in four of his last five years in Pittsburgh. In year one with the Astros, his curveball usage jumped to 28.7%, and his sinker usage fell to 41.3%. He ended the year with a 3.62 ERA, the second-best mark of his career, new career bests in WHIP (1.19), FIP (3.46) and xFIP (3.58), and a strikeout rate of 26.4%. The Astros are doing the exact same thing with Cole and, what’s more, they’re doing it with the exact same playbook.
Cole has always featured a knuckle-curve among his impressive arsenal, but it comprised just fewer than 10% of his offerings over his final two seasons in Pittsburgh. At the same time, his sinker usage remained flat around 16.5%. This was despite the fact that the sinker was, by far, Cole’s worst pitch, registering a .289 batting average and .408 slugging percentage against over his career. He held hitters to a .231 batting average and .327 slugging percentage while racking up a 14.1% whiff rate with the knuckle-curve. Now, the pitches are so different that it isn’t as simple as trading the former for the latter, but it makes sense that he would alter his mix of pitches. That’s exactly what he has done in year one as an Astro.
Cole has thrown 204 pitches in his first two starts this year. Thirty of them, or 14.7%, have been knuckle-curves, while just 12, or 5.9%, have been sinkers. The knuckle-curve has been filthy, registering 11 whiffs and five called strikes. Hitters have put just two of the knuckle-curves in play, resulting in a popout and a single that had an exit velocity of 77.3 mph. Time for us to take a look at a few of the knuckle-curves in action.
The first knuckle-curve we’ll see is a 2-2 offering to Jurickson Profar in Cole’s first start of the season. After that, we get a first-pitch knuckle-curve against Joey Gallo. That’s followed by another first pitch, this one to Eric Hosmer, and our GIF series wraps up with a whiff of Hunter Renfroe on a 2-2 count.
First and foremost, how is it possible the Pirates ever let Cole make this an ancillary offering? That’s pitching malpractice. This is clearly a highlight-reel pitch, one that can get outs in any situation. Cole is comfortable throwing the knuckle-curve to righties and lefties. He can spot it in the zone, or bury it when he’s ahead in the count. He’ll throw it in nearly any count, as we just saw. Of the 30 curveballs, 11 have come with Cole ahead in the count, 15 have come in an even count, and the remaining four have been with him behind. The one thing we haven’t seen him do with it this season is use it as a backdoor offering against a lefty, but that could be driven by opportunity as much as anything else. The pitch clearly has the break and deceptiveness to be a nasty backdoor pitch, especially in a two-strike count.
The days of the knuckle-curve being in the backseat of Cole’s repertoire are over. Just like the Astros did with Morton and Lance McCullers, they’ll make sure the curve is an emphasis for their new starter. Had the Pirates done the same, he could be leading a rotation that includes Jameson Taillon and Morton. Instead, they’re rebuilding while the Astros are among the best teams in the league, with a couple of Pittsburgh castoffs in their rotation. Indulging curiosity is a very good thing.