For the past six years, five names have been atop the Pittsburgh Pirates top prospect list: Gerrit Cole, Gregory Polanco, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Mitch Keller. That list may vary depending on which website your looking at, but generally that's the group.
If the 2013 version of yourself saw the statistics that those five posted in 2019, you might well assume that the Pirates made another appearance in the playoffs. You'd probably be right except that the three most productive players on that list were being productive for different teams.
In a strange twist of fate, the baseball gods saw it fit to pin those former Pirate prospects against each other in a win-or-go-home game to determine who will get a chance to play for the American League Pennant. The starting pitching matchup (Cole vs Glasnow) will stir up all sorts of emotions for Pirate fans. I've seen genuine happiness for the success of Pittsburgh's former players, but it's mostly been anger directed towards the man who sent them away: Neil Huntington.
Both Cole and Glasnow are excellent case studies of pitchers who were mostly disappointments in Pittsburgh only to have immediate success elsewhere.
Gerrit Cole will almost certainly win the AL Cy Young award after leading the AL in ERA (2.50) and strikeouts (326), and coming in second in wins (20). Tyler Glasnow looked poised to push Cole for the same award until an injury derailed his season.
The instant success that those two have had with different teams is troubling to say the least. Cole's numbers with Houston are starkly different than they were in his years in Pittsburgh, and this isn't a situation of Cole simply entering his prime. This is a dramatic, across-the-board-improvement in just about every statistical category.
Glasnow is the same.
Much has been said about the Pirate organization's pitch-to-contact philosophy and the impact it has had on some of these elite pitching prospects. Take a look at the stats below. They show Cole and Glasnow's whiff percentage (% of swings that result in misses) for their final year in Pittsburgh and their first year with their new teams. I included both years for Cole as well.
- 2017 - 22.01%
- 2018 - 31.02%
- 2019 - 37.31%
- 2017 - 20.00%
- 2018 - 28.08% (half of IP in Tampa Bay)
- 2019 - 28.32%
That shouldn't come as a surprise. It's just a statistical representation of what we know to be the Pirate's philosophy, but the correlation of Cole and Glasnow's whiff rates with their overall improvements immediately after leaving Pittsburgh can't be a coincidence. It's also worth mentioning that Cole has achieved this drastically improved whiff rate while also increasing his swing rate. So, not only are batters swinging and missing at Cole's pitches more, they're also swinging more in general. That was a surprising revelation to me as the pitch-to-contact philosophy should yield a higher swing rate and, if successful, more weakly-hit balls. That hasn't been the case for either Cole nor Glasnow as both their line drive percentages have gone down since leaving Pittsburgh.
For a little more perspective, here's another way of looking at it. Cole threw 3,360 pitches this year. With a swing rate of 49.7%, 1,670 of his pitches were swung at. If he maintained his whiff rate from his last year in Pittsburgh, 1,302 Gerrit Cole pitches would have been contacted this year (either foul balls or in play). Instead, that number is 1,047. That's 255 balls that never entered the field of play that otherwise would have. Considering how bad the Pirate's defense has been, that makes a big difference.
This all suggests that both of these pitchers who will be starting in the ALDS elimination game were stars all along - the Pirate's organization just put unnecessary roadblocks in their way. The most frustrating part of all that, for me, is that Huntington felt it worthwhile to draft these elite prospects while not allowing them to take advantage of their strengths.
As I'm writing all of this, my thoughts turn to Mitch Keller. Keller seems to be following the same path as Glasnow - a dominant minor league pitcher who looks anything but at the major league level. One can only hope a change is made in the Pirate organization in time to save Keller's promising career in Pittsburgh.
I'm not sure the appropriate emotion to have while watching the ALDS. On one hand I could see myself lamenting what could have been - wondering what would have happened had Cole and Glasnow remained in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, I could see myself being relieved that the Pirates won't be responsible for completely ruining the careers of two star pitchers by trying to force two of the best square pegs into round holes. Either way, no matter how you feel, game 5 of the ALDS is absolutely and indictment on Neil Huntington's administration and Bob Nutting for allowing it to exist.
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