I wanted to like Gerrit Cole. Honest. When the Pirates selected him No. 1 overall in the 2011 MLB draft, I went along for the ride without even adjusting my seat. Despite the fact that he went to UCLA (I’m a Cal fan). After all, what was not to like about the 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander, who had stud written all over him? Even if he didn’t turn out to be the second coming of Nolan Ryan, he figured to be your proverbial rotation horse, piling up innings on his broad shoulders and anchoring a staff from no worse than the No. 2 slot.
I must admit, though, the thought of Anthony Rendon smashing line drives into PNC Park’s power alleys did have me at least wondering what if. But every time word got back to Pittsburgh of Cole’s triple-digit hard stuff, I put the Rendon man crush on the shelf and reboarded the Cole train.
Cole, who faces the Yankees Tuesday afternoon in Game 3 of the ALCS, began his journey to Pittsburgh at Bradenton of the Class A Florida State League in 2012, posting a nifty 2.55 ERA in 13 starts that totaled 67 innings. He gave up just 53 hits and struck out 69, earning a promotion to Double-A Altoona, where he went 3-6 with a 2.90 ERA. In 12 starts, Cole struck out 60 and gave up just two home runs in 59 innings. He managed to get into one game at the highest minor league level, going six innings to pick up the win for Indianapolis.
In 2013, Cole picked up where he left off – at Indianapolis – and in 12 starts, he went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA while limiting International League hitters to 44 hits in 68 innings and striking out 47.
That earned him a call to Pittsburgh, where he was downright electric in his debut. He shut down the defending world champion San Francisco Giants on two runs and seven hits over 6 1/3 innings. He retired 13 straight hitters at one point, and needed just 24 pitches combined to get through the third, fourth and fifth innings.
In short, he looked like just what the doctor ordered for a Pirates team that had the third-best record in the National League at the time. He wound up winning his first four starts and finished the season with a 10-7 mark and a 3.22 ERA in 117 1/3 innings pitched. He followed that up by pitching the Bucs to a 7-1 victory in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, limiting St. Louis to two hits and a walk over six innings.
Cole didn’t fare as well in his second postseason start, taking the loss in the deciding 6-1 Game 5 defeat, and even though the Pirates failed to close out the Cardinals in that series, the future looked bright for the Bucs – and for Cole. But in reality, the rest of his Pirates career was a bit of a mixed bag. Shoulder fatigue and right lat soreness marred his 2014 campaign, as he made two trips to what was then known as the disabled list and was limited to just 22 starts and 138 innings. Still, he went 11-5 with a 3.65 ERA, and his strikeouts-per-nine and hits-per-nine marks both improved.
He put together his best season as a Pirate in 2015, compiling a 2.66 FIP that ranked him third in the NL. He made 32 starts, topping the 200-inning mark for the first time and compiling a sparkling 19-8 record with a 2.60 ERA.
But 2016 was more like 2014, as he made just 21 starts and pitched 116 innings. A rib issue impacted his preparation in spring training, and he ultimately wound up on the disabled list in June with a right triceps muscle strain before being shut down in September due to right elbow inflammation.
At the time, I had no reason to believe that Cole’s injuries in 2014 and 2016 were anything but legitimate. But as someone who grew up in Pittsburgh in a less than an enlightened era – the days when your coach might tell you to just “walk it off” after tearing your ACL -- I must admit there were times that I questioned his willingness to pitch through, well, let’s just call it discomfort. I also got the sense that Cole wasn’t exactly in love with Pittsburgh – and neither was his agent, Scott Boras. A slender thread of the conspiracist in me wondered if Cole’s trips to the DL were just his way of “saving himself” for that big payday that was a few years down the road. Mind you, I have no proof of that; it was just a feeling. Something about his body language also fed into my thinking. There was just something about it I never liked.
In 2017, Cole had no injury issues, but he – to put it bluntly – wasn’t great. He made a career-high 33 starts and put together a 4.26 ERA in 203 innings. He struck out 196 batters but served up a whopping 31 home runs -- 20 more than his previous high.
We all know what happened next. In the offseason, GM Neal Huntington dealt Cole to Houston for what we now would agree was a less-than-stellar return in the form of Michael Feliz, Jason Martin, Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove. And all Cole has done since then is morph into a right-handed Sandy Koufax – minus the elbow agony -- and set himself up for the mother of all paydays in the next few months.
So what happened? Much has been written and said that the Pirates’ pitch-to-contact, ground ball-heavy emphasis just wasn’t a good match for Cole’s natural ability, and that the organization stunted his development by prohibiting him from relying on what he did best – rear back and try to throw the ball by hitters with his four-seam fastball. For those of you who are analytically inclined, former Pirates beat writer Travis Sawchik provides an in-depth look at Cole’s transformation on the website FiveThirtyEight.com.
We can argue until pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton next winter and far beyond about how badly the Pirates got fleeced in the Cole-to-Houston trade. But based on what he had done up to that point, could they have expected much more? Cole was coming off an average – at best – season and a career that had seen him make more than 30 starts just once prior to that pedestrian 2017 campaign. I’m not defending Huntington’s return; I just highly doubt he could have gotten any more at that point. And given that the Pirates weren’t about to enlighten Cole as to the wonders of getting away from his two-seam fastball and powering up more of the four-seamer, it’s not likely his performance in a Pirates uniform in 2018 would have been all that different from what transpired in 2017. And the return the club would have received with one less year of control could have been even worse.
The bottom line is, the Pirates might have royally screwed up their time with Cole; that’s an argument that easily could be made. Look what he did in the ALDS matchup against Tampa Bay – two wins, one run and 25 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings. But there’s still a part of me that wonders if he held back during his time in Pittsburgh, just to be safe, knowing that his real future lay somewhere other than 115 Federal Street. And for that, I’ll always harbor some resentment against him. That, and the fact that he went to U-Fricking-C-L-A.