Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates rode a high-strikeout, homer-preventing starting rotation to the club's first playoff appearance since 1992. The Bucs' 2014 rotation, however, is far from a lock to post another top-five ERA. A.J. Burnett took his National League-leading strikeout rate and wicked curve to Philly. Francisco Liriano eviscerated hitters last year, but has yet to log back-to-back great seasons during his eight-year career. Charlie Morton mauls righties with his turbo sinker, but turns every lefty he faces into Shin-Soo Choo. Wandy Rodriguez is 35 and has an arthritic left elbow. Jeff Locke walks hitters like Liriano, without the strikeout stuff. By comparison, Edinson Volquez makes Liriano and Locke look like Greg Maddux.
With Burnett gone and the rest of the rotation volatile, the Pirates desperately need Gerrit Cole build upon his excellent rookie year and become a dominant, durable ace. The first overall pick in the 2011 draft looks up to the challenge. Cole quickly progressed from a guy who chucked little more than mid-to-high-90s fastballs in the over the plate to a pitcher capable of expanding hitters' zones with a pair of sinister breaking pitches. Cole struck out just 10.9% of batters faced in June, but he nearly tripled that whiff rate by September (31.2%) and earned a win-or-go-home start over Burnett in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals.
At 6-foot-4 and 240-plus pounds, Cole looks the part of a workhorse. But, more importantly, he performed like one during his rookie season. Most starters get hit harder while facing hitters for the second and third time during a game, losing zip on their pitches and no longer fooling opponents now familiar with their stuff. Not Cole, though. The 23-year-old tasked with leading the Pirates back to the playoffs in 2014 didn't waver in the late innings:
Opponent OPS 1st time through the lineup: .713 (.699 MLB average)
Opponent OPS 2nd time through the lineup: .550 (.730 MLB average)
Opponent OPS 3rd time through the lineup: .612 (.760 MLB average)
Cole started a little slow, with an opponent OPS about two percent worse than the major league average for starters while facing hitters the first time. But then, when lots of guys tail off, Cole smothered hitters. His opponent OPS was 25 percent better than average while facing batters the second time during a start, and 20 percent above average while taking on the lineup a third time.
How does Cole stay strong as his pitch count piles up? He never loses his top-flight fastball. Cole threw his fastball an average of 95.6 MPH in 2013, trailing only Miami's Nathan Eovaldi (96.1 MPH) among all starters. Check out his heat by inning:
When hitters face Cole, they're getting mid-90s gas from beginning to end. And as the game progresses, his fastball gets nastier. Cole got swings and misses 15.2% of the time during the first three innings of his starts. In innings 6-8, he induced whiffs 23% of the time. That's seventh-best among starters throwing at least 200 fastballs during those frames, just behind Yu Darvish and ahead of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
His command of the pitch improves, too: Cole threw 27.2% of his fastballs to the horizontal middle of the strike zone in innings 1-3, but just 18.2% in innings 6-8. That matters because fastballs left over the middle of the plate get plastered (hitters slugged a collective .496 versus middle fastballs last year).
The Pirates surrendered the second-fewest runs (577) in the majors last season, but all of Clint Hurdle's defensive shifts and Ray Searage's reclamation work with broken starters likely won't be enough to keep them at that level (Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, for instance, expects them to give up 678 runs next year). If Pittsburgh has any prayer of another Buctober in 2014, they'll need to ride Cole's resilient right arm deep into games.