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Determining If Gerrit Cole Is An Ace Or Not

The fanbase has been debating whether Cole is an ace or not, after his down year in 2016 Photo by Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

The fanbase has been debating whether Cole is an ace or not, after his down year in 2016
Photo by Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

Like nearly every other star on the Pirates, Gerrit Cole is having (by his standards) a down year.  It says a lot when a pitcher with a 3.30 ERA/3.09 FIP is considering to be disappointing, but that’s where we are with Cole.  But there’s no getting around the fact that Cole is not consistently getting deep into games this year and is producing far fewer strikeouts than a pitcher with his arsenal should be getting.

Cole, through 19 starts, has only pitched 109 innings, good for just 5-2/3 innings per start.  Contrast that with last year’s excellent year that saw him finish 4th in NL Cy Young voting, behind the unfathomably good trio of Arrieta/Greinke/Kershaw, when he pitched 208 innings in 32 starts (6-1/2 innings per start).  Ideally, that number should be around 7 innings per start.  Actually, Cole’s 2016 season is similar in many aspects to his debut 2013 season.  Here’s a comparison of that partial 2013 season to his current one:

  • 2013 — 19 starts, 117 innings, 7.67 K/9, 2.15 BB/9, 0.54 HR/9, 3.22 ERA/2.91 FIP, 2.5 WAR
  • 2016 — 19 starts, 109 innings, 7.51 K/9, 2.56 BB/9, 0.41 HR/9, 3.30 ERA/3.09 FIP, 2.6 WAR

Remember the jubilation that surrounded every Gerrit Cole start?  He was viewed as the savior of this team, the final puzzle piece that would take them to greatness, the crown jewel of the Pirates’ drafts.  His rise to the Majors coincided with the Pirates rising from the depths of being a losing franchise.  The 2013 season was the first of three consecutive winning seasons (we’re in the midst of hopefully #4) and three playoff appearances.  Cole was dominant down the stretch in 2013 and in the NLDS against the Cardinals that year.

And now in 2016, with virtually the same surface numbers, Cole’s starts are viewed with trepidation.  Or even worse, apathy.  Most fans seem to just hope he can go 6 innings and turn the game over to the bullpen to secure a win.  So let’s try and determine, using both old school and new school stats, on whether or not Gerrit Cole is a legit #1 ace.

THE EYEBALL/GUT FEEL ACE TEST

I’ve long held to the maxim that there are only 8 to 12 true aces in baseball at any time.  Just because some team has a pitcher in their first rotation spot doesn’t mean that pitcher is a #1.  For me, an ace needs to pitch 200+ innings, have a strikeout ratio of 9 per 9 innings, keep walks down below 3 per 9 innings, and have an ERA right around 3.00 or better.  He should also have three plus pitches and it sure helps if one of them is a blazing mid-90’s fastball.

Last year, Cole pitched 208 innings, with a K rate of 8.74/9 IP, a BB rate of 1.90/9 IP, and an ERA of 2.60.  To me, that says “ace”.  His 2016 numbers to-date are shown above, so clearly he’s regressed this season to a degree.  An ace needs to prove it over multiple seasons, putting him still on that threshold, understandably.

But let me ask you this?  Who would you unequivocally say is a better #1 level pitcher than Cole in the Majors?  Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • Kershaw
  • Bumgarner
  • Sale
  • Arrieta
  • Strasburg
  • Scherzer
  • Fernandez
  • Syndergaard
  • Price
  • Kluber
  • Cueto

That’s 11 pitchers that I can easily say are better, but Cole would slide right in at #12 for me.  He’s in the mix with Jacob deGrom and Jose Quintana, with Dallas Keuchel in the discussion, too.  So he’s a borderline, low-end #1.

THE RULE OF SIX, USING WAR TEST

The basic rule of thumb for using WAR to evaluate starting pitchers is as follows:

  • #1 pitcher — 5+ WAR
  • #2 pitcher — 4 WAR
  • #3 pitcher — 3 WAR
  • #4 pitcher — 2 WAR (league average starter, by the way)
  • #5 pitcher — 1 WAR

I’ve taken that to create what I call “The Rule of Six”.  All you do is take a player’s WAR total and subtract it from 6, to get what level of pitcher he is performing at.  In Cole’s outstanding 2015, he produced 5.4 WAR, hence his Rule of Six was 0.6, implying that he’s a #1 pitcher.  Let’s use Fangraphs’ sorting tool by the past calendar year to see how Cole has done since last August up until now.  As always, click the link if you want to play around with the columns yourself or if the graphic is too small:

calendar year cole

You can see that Cole is ranked 16th in the past calendar year in terms of WAR accrued and that his 4.4 WAR puts him at 1.6 on Rule of Six, implying that he’s somewhere between a #1 and #2 level pitcher.  Based on his work this season, especially since he missed a month of time to bolster his WAR total, that makes sense.

SORTING HIM OUT BY PERIPHERAL STATS

Cole debuted in 2013, so again using Fangraphs sorting table (500 min IP over the 2013-16 timeframe), here’s how he stacks up against other starters from 2013 to present based on peripheral rate stats.

  • K/9 — 20th overall with 8.37/9 IP
  • BB/9 — 24th overall with 2.23/9 IP
  • HR/9 — 3rd overall with 0.51/9 IP
  • ERA — 10th overall with 3.10
  • FIP — 5th overall with 2.89

All of this paints a picture for me as a guy who is a borderline ace that needs just a few more strikeouts to become a bonafide one.  This is all lending credence to the working theory that Cole is a low-end #1 pitcher.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

I hope that if you came into this article thinking that Cole wasn’t an ace that you have been convinced he’s a borderline one.  I hope that you didn’t come into this article thinking he was the best pitcher in baseball and I’ve discouraged you after showing evidence that he’s not.  Gerrit Cole has had an off year, which I will again contend is due to his triceps injury, but his combination of stuff and stats shows to me that he is the true ace of the Pirates staff — a real #1.

People get too wrapped up in the game to game performances of a pitcher.  There are always going to be ups and downs over 162 games or 32 starts by a pitcher.  The end result is that when the Pirates need a key start in September (and hopefully October), Gerrit Cole is the pitcher I would turn to.  Just because he’s not an ace at this exact moment in time doesn’t mean he wasn’t one in the past or can be one again in the future.

About Kevin Creagh (289 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

2 Comments on Determining If Gerrit Cole Is An Ace Or Not

  1. I don’t know what all these statistics are for because you only need to ask one question, can he throw off speed? Until he can throw a change up or curveball with some level of regularity, he will not be an ace.

    • Kevin Creagh // August 25, 2016 at 12:15 PM //

      As per PitchF/X, Cole throws a curve 10.3% of the time (at 81 mph) and it rates as a positive pitch (+1.11 runs/100 thrown). He also throws a change 5% of the time (at 88 mph), but it does not rate well (-2.36 runs/100 thrown). The differential b/ his change and fastball is 7 mph, which is an OK difference between the two, as 7-10 mph is preferred.

      For me, he doesn’t have the same late, biting movement on his slider or fastball.

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