Most baseball fans are familiar with the phrase "Three True Outcomes". The term refers to walks, strike outs and home runs. These outcomes are "true" in that they pit the pitcher against the batter, largely independent of outside factors like defense or foot speed. When ball four is awarded to the batter, it is a certainty that he will be reaching first base.
When it comes to prospects, certainties do not exist. Every prospect has a wide range of outcomes between their ceiling and floor potential, with most players settling somewhere in between the two. I like to think of prospect outcomes as the Dream (the player's ceiling), the Nightmare (the player's floor) and the Reality (weighing all the factors to come up with the most likely outcome). Throughout the year, we will be examining the ceilings and floors of players across the minor leagues, and making our best forecasts on the eventual outcome. Today, we take a look at the Three (Possibly) True Outcomes for one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Pittsburgh Pirates' right hander Gerrit Cole.
If you could ask scouts to describe what they look for in a front of the rotation starter, almost every one would paint you a picture of Gerrit Cole. It starts with the work-horse body, a muscular 6'4 frame with broad shoulders and thick, powerful legs. But Cole is more than just a pretty physique; he also has the repertoire of a No. 1 starter. He throws a 4-seam fastball that routinely sits in the upper 90s, touching 100 mph. The velocity is some of the easiest in the minor leagues, and he holds it deep into games. Cole's arsenal also features two outstanding secondary pitches, a swing and miss slider he throws in the low 90s with outstanding depth, and a plus-plus changeup with good arm action and fade. Finally, he has the pedigree you look for in a true ace. Cole was drafted 28th overall by the New York Yankees in 2008, but he never even negotiated with the team before heading to UCLA. Three short years later, Cole was selected 1st overall in one of the best pitching drafts in the last 20 years. In his first season of pro ball, Cole finished the season with a 2.80 ERA and more strikeouts than innings pitched, pitching in the futures game and reaching Triple-A along the way. He could be a force in the major leagues, and he could do it as soon as 2013. The three big prospect lists, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN, all ranked Cole as a top-10 prospect and BP ranked him as the best pitching prospect in the game. Cole's upside is that of a fantasy star and a perennial Cy Young candidate that puts up gaudy strikeout totals.
Ceiling Fantasy Line: 21 wins, 2.50 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 243 K
The concern with Cole is that the results will never match up with the raw stuff. In his final collegiate season, Cole was 6-8 with a 3.31 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 114.3 innings, good totals, but hardly the numbers you would expect from the best starter in the country. Last year's minor league numbers were again good for the typical prospect; just not good enough for what Gerrit Cole brings to the table. We are talking about a pitcher with three 70 grade or better pitches, so it certainly concerns me that he has not had more success to this point. The big problem for Cole seems to be his command. His control is fine as he throws plenty of strikes, but he fails to throw enough quality strikes to really dominate. His delivery also allows hitters to see the ball very well out of his hand and his fastball, while extremely hard, is rather flat, especially when up in the strike zone. His velocity also may be a detriment at times because he reacts to adversity simply by trying to throw the ball through his catcher, rather than attempting to make better pitches. That mentality will not work with big league hitters, and any unwillingness to make adjustments is a red flag. Two recent top prospects, Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales had similar issues and neither of them even came close to reaching expectations. If Cole refuses to adjust his approach, he will find himself struggling to become anything more than a No. 5 starter.
Floor Fantasy Line: 8 wins, 4.73 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 157 K
Truth be told, I have never been a huge fan of Gerrit Cole (in a relative sense, of course). I liked several other available players in the 2011 draft more, and I have never thought of his total skill set as a No. 1 or 2 starter. Sure, the size and jaw dropping stuff scream ace, I just feel that the command will always stand in the way of that outcome. I try to avoid comps, but I can't help thinking of Edwin Jackson when looking at Cole. When you watch Jackson pitch, you see better velocity than the vast majority of starting pitchers, solid control, and well above average secondary pitches. Somehow though, every year Jackson's ERA is around 4.00 and he posts a middling strikeout total. Look at this excerpt from Baseball America's scouting report on Jackson in 2003:
Jackson's picturesque delivery, clean arm action and premium athleticism aid him in making 98 mph fastballs look effortless. He sits between 91-97 and can maintain his velocity deep into games. Jackson is the complete package, and fits the profile of a top-of-the-line starting pitcher to a tee.
What has held Jackson back from being one of the best pitchers in the Majors? Jackson has had trouble with his command. Now, Edwin Jackson is a very quality starter. He just happens to be one that is better suited for the back of a rotation than the front. Cole has better present control and secondary pitches than Jackson did at the same age, yet the similarities remain eerie. Gerrit Cole will have stretches where he will look like one of the best pitchers in the game; he just will lack the consistency to perform at that level year in and year out. When it's all said and done, I think Cole's prime is that of a very good No. 3 starter and a top-35 fantasy starter because of his strikeouts.
Fantasy Line: 13 Wins, 3.89 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 173 K