During the streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons, selecting quality pitching prospects in the draft did not come easy for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Over the years, we have all witnessed first round picks who could never live up to the hype. This season, Gerrit Cole has proved to be the exception.
After finishing the 2010 season with a league worst 57-105 record, the Pirates earned the right to the first selection in the 2011 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft. With a draft class that was full of young talent that included Pitchers Trevor Bauer, Jose Fernandez, Sonny Gray and infielders Anthony Rendon and Kolten Wong, the Pirates put their trust in Cole, selecting him first overall and signing him to a minor league contract that included an $8 million guaranteed signing bonus.
Like any first overall pick, the expectations have always been high for the hard throwing right hander. After spending the end of the 2011 season playing in the Arizona Fall League, Cole climbed the minor league ladder at a quick pace in 2012, spending time with the Bradenton Marauders (A), Altoona Curve (AA), and Indianapolis Indians (AAA).
To open up the 2013 season, Cole began pitching for the AAA Indians, compiling a 5-3 record with a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts. Due to various injuries within the Pirates starting rotation, Cole was called up in mid-June to make his highly anticipated Major League debut against the defending champion San Francisco Giants.
The atmosphere at PNC Park on that day was unlike any other. Though the Pirates were having success during the season, a year in which they would break the streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons, fans piled into the ballpark not only to see their favorite team try to pick up a victory, but also to witness history. As fans were making their way to their seats, cheers began raining down on the young pitcher during warmups, long before he had even thrown his first pitch from the mound. When he took the mound for game time, Cole wasted no time giving a nice first impression to the PNC Park faithful. I’m sure San Francisco Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco fondly remembers the moment. After falling into a 0-2 hole to the Pirates top pitching prospect, Blanco struck out on three pitches, with the third pitch coming in at 99 miles per hour. This was the moment that Pirates fans have waited so many long years for. This was the moment that Pirates fans truly believed that the organization had finally found the future anchor of the starting rotation.
The stellar performance for Cole didn’t stop there. He also showed his prowess at the plate as well. In his first career appearance at the dish, Cole drove in two runs with a bases loaded single in the second inning that would give the Pirates a 2-0 lead. Cole pitched 6 1/3 innings in his debut, giving up two earned runs and striking out two San Francisco batters. Though his first career start was more than impressive, those who got to witness his greatness knew that this particular night was only an example of good things to come.
That night was indeed an indication of what we have seen over the past few years. Cole finished 2013 with a 10-7 record and a 3.22 ERA in 19 starts for the Pirates. He also helped bring in the Pirates first postseason appearance since 1992, pitching six solid innings in a game two victory against the St Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series.
After starting his major league career on a high note in 2013 and despite missing time due to injuries in 2014, Cole has been a bright spot this season in a rotation that has seen Francisco Liriano, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke all have their fair share of struggles. Other than AJ Burnett, he is the only starter in the rotation with over three victories and a below 3.00 ERA. Though he has cooled down a bit since being named National League Pitcher of the month in April, Cole has remained a consistent threat at the top of the pitching staff.
One thing we’ve learned in the first month and a half of the season is that having him on the mound constantly gives the Pirates a chance to win. The fact that he has allowed three or less runs in each of his eight starts is proof of that. In those eight starts this season, Cole is 5-2 with a 2.40 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 48.2 innings pitched. It is those numbers that have helped prove that Cole is the real deal. His consistency, his will to win, and his pure abilities are also what have helped him develop into a legit Cy Young candidate this season. Though he will have heavy competition from the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer and Matt Harvey, Cole has repeatedly proved that he deserves to be in the conversation for the prestigious award.
The evolution of Gerrit Cole as a Major League pitcher has been a thrill to watch. From the immediate success he had on that sunny June night in 2013, to the success he is having this season, Cole has proved to live up to the hype that surrounded him when he was drafted in 2011.
With Cole living up to the high expectations, Pirates fans can finally get over the former first overall picks, like Kris Benson and Bryan Bullington, that just never lived up to their potential. Pittsburgh fans can finally come to terms with the fact that the Pirates have finally found the anchor of their pitching staff and their ace in Gerrit Cole.