(Photo Credit: REUTERS/JOE CAMPOREALE)
There is a weight of expectation that comes with being a first overall pick. Yet, since the Draft started in 1965, there have only been two first overall picks that went on to the Hall of Fame: Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones.
In 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates hoped that a young righty by the name of Gerrit Cole could be their answer and make the impact that Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who were the 2009 and 2010 #1 picks, were about to make.
Cole made his major league debut in 2013 after slicing his way through the minors. It was a 6.1 inning, two strikeout win against the San Francisco Giants that showed a lot of his promise.
His 2013 season displayed a lot of command, but not much in the way of ace-like strikeout power. He notched just 100 K's in 117.1 innings, and while the ERA was a nice 3.22, the performances didn't quite match the hype.
It wasn't until 2015 that everything came together. A full season of 32 starts saw him log 208 innings, the benchmark of a top of the line starter, as well as breaking the 200 strikeout mark. His 2.60 ERA was impressive, and Cole finished fourth in Cy Young voting that year while also making his first All-Star appearance. He was finally the ace that had been promised. Except it didn't really last.
He made just 21 starts in 2016, with his ERA spiking to 3.88 and his strikeouts dropping. He was healthy in 2017, but less effective. He allowed 31 homers in 33 starts and a career-high ERA of 4.26. He broke the 200-inning mark again, but in far less style than he had in 2015.
In January the Pirates made the decision to move their inconsistent ace. His two years of team control allowed them to get a nice haul from the Houston Astros, but since getting to Texas, Cole has become the dominant pitcher he was always meant to be.
Gerrit Cole 2.0
At the time of writing, Cole leads the American League in strikeouts (77). He leads the American League with 7.1 innings pitched per start. He is second in the AL in ERA to his teammate Justin Verlander, and second in WHIP behind Oakland's Sean Manaea.
The difference in results from 2017 to 2018 could not be more stark. His K/9 has exploded to 13.68, his walk rate is the lowest it has ever been (1.6 BB/9) and he has a career-low FIP of 1.55.
Cole has not suddenly added 3 mph to his pitches or mastered a new breaking ball. The turnaround in form is almost entirely down to his pitch selection. His fastball has always been a monster, sitting around 97 mph with reasonable movement, but he has gone from throwing it around 67% of the time with the Pirates to just 53% with the Astros.
The difference is being made up by a much heavier use of his breaking pitches. Both his slider and curveball have seen an uptick in usage of around 6% from last year, while his changeup usage is down a fraction.
By mixing his pitches more frequently, Cole has been able to bamboozle hitters. He is currently holding a 16.4% swinging strike rate which is near-enough double his usual mark, and the variety of pitches is inducing hitters to lay off pitches in the zone and chase ones out of it. No one has been able to get a read on what situations Cole will use a fastball or a breaking ball, and that has been deadly.
This new approach has seen him tally five double-digit strikeout starts this season already, including a monstrous 16 K one-hitter against the Diamondbacks on Friday. To put into perspective just how monumental a shift that is, Cole managed three double-digit strikeout performances in his last three YEARS as a Pirate.
The new version of Gerrit Cole is the monster you dream of when you select a pitcher at #1 in the draft. He is the sort of player that can take a team back to the World Series and more than cover for the disappointing start of others in the rotation.
The Pirates never got the best of Gerrit Cole, but the Astros are, and we should all be thankful for that.