Gerrit Cole is transitioning from a hard-throwing, high-upside former top draft pick to one of the best pitchers in the game. I had the opportunity to talk to the Pirates right-hander for about 20 minutes last Wednesday. We discussed making the leap into being one of the game's elite pitchers, last year's injury setbacks, his success against left-handed hitters this season, and his effort to master pitching at 80 percent effort rather than maxing out each pitch. I also learned that making Chris Stewart Cole's personal catcher was fully Clint Hurdle's decision. Finally, after learning last year how meticulous he is about keeping a clean pitcher's rubber, this time I asked him about the pitcher's mound itself and what makes a good one.
One item to note is how times Cole refers to his delivery as an important change this season. He credits a consistent delivery for improving his slider and allowing him to add and subtract velocity to all his pitches, while also locating. It's interesting that working on his delivery and learning how to become an effective pitcher, rather than just a hard thrower, both seem to be a direct result of what he learned from his injuries last season. It could turn out that last season's frustrations have sped up Cole's maturation, and turned him into a pitcher who not only dominates over short stretches, but one who can be pitch 200-plus strong innings for years to come.
Here's the transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
What's your evaluation of how you and the pitching staff have performed during the first half of the season?
I think we've done a great job so far. I think we've done a good job competing and putting ourselves in a good position to keep on competing. Everybody's feeling good, feeling strong and taking care of their bodies. The execution, in terms of our game plan and our approach, has stayed consistent to this point. We've stayed really connected through the rotation and into the bullpen. So it's really been a good first half all around and it looks sustainable. That's the biggest key.
It seems like yesterday that you made your first major-league start, but here it is two and a half years later. What have you learned since then about being a big-leaguer?
I've learned more up here than I did in the minor leagues. There is no substitution for watching the best of the best on a daily basis. Having the privilege to watch guys go about their work when they're not on the field, that's something that [the media] and the rest of the public don't always see -- the discipline it takes to prepare yourself to start. I've incorporated bits and pieces of everybody here that I admire into my own plan, and I anticipate doing that, really, for the rest of my career, because I think there's things to be learned from every player in here. I mean, they're an expert in their own field.
You're starting to be seen as someone who is making the leap into the next, more elite, level of starting pitchers. Are you at all aware or conscious that it's happening? Or do you just have blinders on and go about doing what you do?
I do, I mean, it's hard to ignore where the numbers are at this point. But I feel like the mindset has been the same. And I'm just getting better through experience. Understanding and appreciating how to handle situations, not only out on the field, but just getting more comfortable and [having] better execution.
I've settled into my delivery. There's no major mechanical ... I mean, there's always minor adjustments as you go, but it's always about fine-tuning rather than adding a new wheel or a new engine. And it's been easier to maintain and that's just through the process. I don't feel like I've really done anything out of the ordinary or anything different. It's just the experience of the time making you better and giving you more experiences that make you more comfortable with situations that allow you to handle them better.
Last year when we talked, you mentioned that catchers have ERAs as much as pitchers do. Are you surprised, or impressed, with the job that Francisco Cervelli has done since joining the team?
I think he's done an excellent job. Both catchers have done an excellent job. It's a seamless transition from one to the other. Obviously, I've worked with Stew [Chris Stewart] more than I have with Cervelli, and that's not something I went in asked for it. That's just something that's happened. The skipper wanted to roll with it. So be it. I'm just here to pitch. But I think Cervelli has done a really good job. Obviously he's got the tools and the skill set to do a lot of great things in this game. And the pace in which he's learning the National League is good. We're almost at the All-Star break now and he's got an idea about the identity of the teams in our division and he's starting to get an idea [for teams out of the division too]. And the biggest key is getting a feel for what Frankie [Liriano] and A.J. [Burnett] likes to do. And it's coming along quickly.
I guess I anticipated [how well he'd do] because of his skill set. I mean, he's a very good catcher all around. Offensive, defensive, game management, blocking balls, he's a complete package. It's just about fine-tuning his skills and fine-tuning his reads to this division. It's been coming along very nicely.
You've had great success against left-handers this season. In an article on FanGraphs, they talked about a change in your slider usage and focusing more on north-south, up-down movement. Did you change your slider approach against left-handers?
I've executed my pitches better against left-handers. I've executed the left side of the plate better. I've found areas to get quick strikes and get leverage. And I've stayed behind the slider better this year, which always is good because it creates more depth. There is not a conscious effort to spin it more down. It's just settling into the delivery better. Having quality delivery and not overthrowing pitches as much.
What does more depth on the slider mean?
It means that it is breaking on two planes. It's going down and side-to-side. You get that depth if you stay behind, with the fingers on top. You spin it tighter with less effort and the ball creates depth.
The fastball has some sort of depth or ride, so you want to throw the breaking ball off of the same kind of depth. If you're not overthrowing things and you're staying behind the baseball, you can get that depth. I've been able to get it and locate it better and not overthrow it.
Is that something you identified coming into the season that you wanted to work on?
No. I've always thrown the changeup and I've never quite executed it as well as I have everything else. It's probably my second oldest pitch I've had. That was the first off-speed pitch that I threw when I was a kid. It was the only thing I threw. But when I got into competitive baseball and professional baseball, it's always been the fastball/slider combo. Those two have just progressed in the sense that I can locate them. I can go down [and] away, down and in. I can move the slider up if I need to, you know, if I want to put it on somebody's hands. And I can do the same with the fastball.
But the last couple games, we've mixed in some other pitches. It's not that the quality's not there, it's just the location and where you can't miss with certain pitches because you'll get burned. But those [other pitches] are coming along and the level of execution is getting better. So, I anticipate mixing those in more. But just the natural progression of where we've gotten so far, it's been fastball / slider that have come around. It's a four or five pitch mix.
I remember last season when you got injured that you really just wanted to keep going out there and keep pitching. Did you learn anything from getting injured last season, in terms of how to respond when you're hurting? And were ever worried about the seriousness of what you were going through?
Yeah, whenever you get hurt there is an anxiety that goes with it. That's what makes it so tough. I learned a lot of things from the experience. It was the first time I had been taken off the field. I learned that there are times to hit the gas and there are times to lay off. Those opportunities and those demands are going to come up throughout the season. You're going to have to execute in both of those scenarios.
So it's not always about going full bore every time. You have to pitch, you have to be able to conserve. You have to be able to have the execution and nastiness when you're throwing at 80 percent effort. Because I fully believe that those guys that throw 200 to 235 innings, they're not out there blowing it out every single time.
That speaks to body control and the discipline they have throughout their delivery. They are still able to execute pitches at that level. Then, over a long period of time, that lower level becomes comfortable. I think I'm getting to that point now, and that I learned that coming off the disabled list. You just can't keep red-lining it every time.
I also learned the process of coming back from the DL and incorporating certain shoulder exercises. I was a guy that never did any of that kind of stuff before. I was diligent with my arm before, but it's one of those things if you watch somebody else do 55 arm exercises throughout the week and you're like, "My arm doesn't hurt. I've never done that my entire life. Why would I do that now?"
But when you get hurt and start to incorporate those things -- and I haven't overloaded the workouts, I've just sprinkled them in -- I think that's helped maintain the overall thought process. Especially if you take it one day at a time and ask yourself, "How do I feel today, and how do I improve for tomorrow? What can I do today that will make my arm feel good tomorrow?"
You do that, and then all the sudden you'll look up and find yourself pitching again and you feel good doing it. So the DL slowed everything down for me and allowed me to find that slow consistent rhythm of taking care of my arm. I got in that that rhythm at the end of last year and I've come in this year and stayed disciplined.
You mentioned not red-lining all the time. You've drawn comparisons to Justin Verlander this season, with your ability to power up late in the game. How do you think through how and when to change effort levels?
Somebody asked me recently if I start off slow so that I can have it hard later. It's not really about that, it's about bringing a delivery out that you can repeat and make a handful of pitches with. And the best way to find that delivery is not always to come out blowing out at 100 MPH from the get-go. And then if you can cruise at that level throughout the game, and also gear down to that second and third gear and find pitches and stay comfortable, then that first gear becomes an extra weapon.
So you have the fastball, curveball, changeup, slider and two-seam fastball, and then you have the elevated level of that. Johnny Cueto does a great job of it, from the quick pitch to the 92 to the 96 fastball, to the 82 to 86 slider. He's constantly changing speeds, constantly throttling up and throttling back. He's reading hitters' aggression and that dictates what he wants to do with the baseball. That's pitching.
We've talked before about how meticulous you are about having a groomed mound. Last year we talked about your habit of keeping a perfectly clean pitcher's rubber. What's the perfect set-up for you? What kind of mound do you like?
I like big mounds. Big, wide mounds that make you feel big. You want to feel as tall and as big as you can. Everybody loves it when the plate feels close. So whether that's the depth perception of the backstop or the height of mound, I'm not sure. But when it feels like it's close, when it feels like it's manageable, and when it feels like you're not throwing the ball far, that's when it's comfortable.
From the same series of interviews I conducted with Pirates starting pitchers last week, check this Q & A with A.J. Burnett and Jeff Locke tells the story behind his and A.J.'s friendship.