Being a first overall pick affords you some luxuries that later round picks just don’t have. Look at Matt Bush, where despite legal trouble and lack of effectiveness, was given every opportunity to succeed until he finally found something with the Texas Rangers (even then, this is after moving from shortstop to pitcher). Essentially, being drafted that high means you have to prove to teams that you aren’t worthy of a roster spot, instead of the usual thinking that every spot is earned.
Now, this isn’t to say Gerrit Cole is really comparable to Matt Bush, because he isn’t. But look at Cole’s 2017 stats, and tell me if this is something you’re excited about – 4.26 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 8.69 K/9 and 45% ground ball rate. That’s a lot to take in at once, but it’s not necessarily what you would expect from a guy averaging 71st overall pick in fantasy drafts, and 21st for pitchers. He’s getting picked before guys like Jake Arrieta and David Price, who both have pitched better the past few years and project the same (even with concern’s about Price’s arm health last year).
Now, part of the praise is deserved, just two years off of a 2.60 ERA, 24.3% strikeout season that earned him a fourth place Cy Young finish. 2016 saw limited action, where he performed poorly with a 3.88 ERA and just 19.4% strikeouts. Cole’s early success and high draft ranking are carrying him, and while that talent still exists at just 27, it isn’t necessarily indicative of a bounce back year.
Cole works mostly off of his fastball, with a sprinkling of changeup, slider and curveballs as well. His fastball has historically been his best pitch, being worth 24.2 runs above average in his fantastic 2015 campaign. But the past few years it hasn’t been as effective, worth 0.7 and 3.1 above average in 2016 and 2017, respectively. He’s actually gained vertical movement on his fastball, meaning there’s more rise to it, going from about 7.4 inches to 8.6. The ball doesn’t have much horizontal movement, and despite its high velocity, it has been getting his at a rate that Cole’s secondary stuff can’t keep up with.
A positive we did see last year was increased use in his changeup, from 5% to 10%, worth 3.6 runs above average while it was worth 4.5 runs below average the year before. Using the changeup more often will no doubt help him use the fastball more effectively, which is why it’s a little surprising his fastball has performed so poorly. Plus the changeup is generally a great platoon buster, working well against opposite handed hitters, making it harder for teams to just stack the other hand against him on a given day.
Despite this, Cole’s projections still aren’t really buying into him. His projected strikeout rate and walk rates are the same, while most forecasts have his ERA back in the 4.00s. The most bullish systems, ATC and ZiPS, work off of a highly projected Left on Base percentage, which isn’t sustainable or a sign of skill, merely a good luck signal. (While fan projections are much better for him, the fans also tend to expect more out of everyone, which is not a very accurate measure).
As if this isn’t enough, he’s changing from the NL to the AL, where instead of a hitter every ninth spot he gets to face a guy who literally only has one job – to hit. And on top of that, the Astros play in a very hitter friendly park, while the Pirates play in a more pitcher friendly park by comparison.
Now this has mostly been a pretty harsh article so far, and that’s not entirely the intention. Cole does have good stuff, he shows potential to have a plus changeup and curveball as well (even though the curve took a step back in 2017). His fastball doesn’t have to come all the way back to 2015 levels for him to be successful, especially if he has two plus off-speed pitches. The talent is there, and he’s shown he has the ability to perform at a high level if he can get back.
Overall, Gerrit Cole is a talented pitcher still struggling to figure himself out. His high draft position, elite prospect pedigree, plus a dominant season mixed in, has many fans drafting him early (and often) to get that next big breakout. But Cole just hasn’t shown enough to me to warrant his draft position. His profile says breakout candidate, yet fantasy owners are spending on him like he owns a multiple year track record of great seasons. He’s a good pitcher, who very well could have another year like 2015 coming up, but that chance is too small to be betting that big, when there’s more proven and tangible talent still on the draft board.
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