Gerrit Cole May or May Not Become an Astro

Gerrit Cole is reportedly on the verge of joining the Astros:

Or… maybe he’s not:

In any case, it sounds like a deal will get done eventually:

Unless it doesn’t:

While something may or may not be imminent, such a trade would not be surprising: the Pirates have decided to retool at some level and Cole’s name has come up all offseason, first connected to the Yankees (though the Yankees were apparently unwilling to part with Gleyber Torres). The Astros are a top AL contender, the sort team looking to consolidate its position.

The possible return is not yet clear, though the Astros possess the sort of high-end prospects which the Pirates currently lack in their system. So, on the surface, this potential trade makes a lot of sense. A club headed for a rebuild sells two years of control of a top-of-the-rotation arm to a contender.

On the other hand, the Astros are not screaming out for starting pitching need, with Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh, Dallas Keuchel, Brad Peacock, Justin Verlander, and former Pirate and World Series hero Charlie Morton all returning to the club.

At present, FanGraphs projects the Astros to enjoy the fourth-most (16 WAR) starting-pitching production in the game, behind only fellow super teams the Dodgers, Indians, and Nationals.

This is also an Astros team that appears to be have greater need in the bullpen than rotation, manager A.J. Hinch having been unwilling to trust the vast majority of his relief corps during the World Series following Chris Devenski’s second-half decline and Ken Giles‘ October struggles.

Moreover, the Astros really don’t need to do anything this offseason to remain the favorite in the AL West. They entered the day with our top forecast wins total (97). They are, after all, the reigning World Series champ, one which returns the vast majority of its roster.

So, Cole might seem like a luxury for one of the best, if not the best, club in baseball entering 2018. Perhaps there is a case to be made the Astros are unnecessarily trading away significant pieces for tomorrow to overload on today. But the Astros probably will note the old axiom that you can never have too much starting pitching and that depth is fleeting.

And the Astros might believe they can get more out of Cole.

Eno is going to have more on why Cole might be a great fit with the Astros later today. In short, Cole has been one of the most fastball-dominant pitchers in the game. Hitters began to catch up and turn on his 96 mph fastball velocity in recent seasons, particularly this most recent one.

Cole needs to evolve. Perhaps he was even beginning to evolve in 2017. There appears to be some evidence to that effect.

Cole allowed 18 home runs on his four- and two-seamers in 2017, compared to five and seven the previous two years. Batters pulled 91 air balls against him last year, posting an .852 wOBA to the pull field, both career-worst numbers by some distance. Batters are becoming better fastball hunters, as Cole can attest.

Air Balls to Pull Side vs. Gerrit Cole
2013 PIT 38 20 9 0 2 2 2 0.526 0.921 0.622 0.14
2014 PIT 50 31 14 1 7 7 7 0.62 1.36 0.851 0.27
2015 PIT 65 40 10 1 4 4 4 0.615 0.984 0.683 0.19
2016 PIT 45 33 15 0 3 3 3 0.733 1.266 0.841 0.21
2017 PIT 91 57 15 2 19 19 19 0.626 1.461 0.853 0.42

But Cole also doubled his changeup usage and dropped his use of the four-seam fastball by eight percentage points last season. Signs of evolution? Perhaps. Cole might be understanding and/or accepting the reality that, despite his fastball’s elite velocity, it lacks the spin and life to be a dominant pitch.

Said Cubs pitching guru Jim Benedict — who worked with Cole in Pittsburgh — to Peter Gammons in a piece for the Athletic:

“Kids grow up creating velo at the expense of deception, for instance. He’s now reversing that.


“It’s unusual today for a starting pitcher to be primarily a fastball pitcher. Realize, today, the way kids grow up hitting in showcases where velocity is what is considered the measuring stick for pitchers, hitters grow up hitting fastballs. Big league hitters can hunt fastballs, and they can hit them. Hitters have learned to hunt Gerrit’s fastball. He’s now making adjustments and learning.”

Only the Rangers (29.4%) threw a lower percentage of fastballs than the Astros (29.8%) last season.

It was Morton, a former teammate of Cole’s, who broke out with the Astros last year by relying less on his two-seamer and attempting to miss more bats. It is an approach that largely contradicts the Pirates’. He threw a career-high rate of curves in process (28.3%). His fastball velocity jumped. The results were tremendous. Morton explained his evolution to me during the World Series in Houston.

“I got tired of giving things up to fate,” Morton said. “In 2015 I came back [from hip surgery], and I was pitching pretty well through my first few starts. I think I made five starts that I felt really good [about], and I made that start in Washington. I gave up like nine runs in two-thirds of an inning or something like that … And that pretty much set my season on a course, volatile, like a roller coaster, a good one, bad one. And what I found was that my success really hinged on quality of contact and where the ball went after it was put in play. It just seemed like I was at a point in my career where I got tired of that.”

Maybe Cole will try and miss more bats, too, and his strikeout totals will surge. If he becomes an Astro, that is.

The Astros could accelerate Cole’s evolution. Cole has a curveball and slider; those are the bat-missing offerings that allowed him to finish fifth in NL Cy Young voting in 2015. That season, his slider ranked 15th among starters in whiff rate. Perhaps the Astros can get the pitch back to being elite and Cole to throw it more often.

The Astros have probably also noticed how the bullpen market has perhaps become overpriced with teams spending two dollars on relievers for every one on starting pitchers thus far this offseason. Cole could help reduce the workload on an Astros bullpen, upon an arm like Devenski, who was perhaps overworked in the first half.

And, moreover, the Astros know this is their last year of control over one of their top starters, Keuchel. Cole, meanwhile, cannot become a free agent until after the 2019 season. So while some might see Cole as a luxury piece, the Astros might see him as an impact piece who has remaining upside they can mine.

The Astros might not see a luxury but an undervalued ace.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Thinking through this:

If the Pirates are going to get Forrest Whitley or Kyle Tucker as part of a Cole package, they would race to complete the deal. But on the flipside, it’s hard to see that they would complete the deal without one of them.

The Astros giving up elite prospects for a couple of years of team control would be against how Luhnow usually does business, especially for a player who struggled last year. Reclamation projects usually don’t cost that much.

However, the Yankees have been telling the Pirates no on Gleyber Torres, and now there are reports that there is a third mystery team in the running surfacing.

Decent chance here this is the Pirates trying to drive up Cole’s price.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

2 years of Gerrit Cole >= 2.5 years of Sonny Gray, so maybe Bukauskas (50 arm), Yordan Alvarez (45/50 bat), and David Paulino (45 arm) matches Fowler, Mateo, and Kaprelian.

6 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

I think Bukauskas and Alvarez would have to be part of a deal without Tucker/Whitley. But if the Pirates are holding the line for Gleyber Torres from the Yankees instead of Clint Frazier, they wouldn’t do a deal with the Astros unless the Pirates were really low on Frazier.

6 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

You’ll have to defend that a bit. Gray had a better ERA, FIP, and XFIP. Both are above-average injury risks to an extent. Cole has the better track record, but Gray put up his numbers in the AL. Cole’s GB rate is in decline while Gray’s is holding steady.

I might be overly scared of pitchers moving from the NL to AL, but I’d take Gray over Cole for the same amount of time, never mind the extra half season that Gray gave the Yankees.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

How do we know how Luhnow does business now though? The Astros are pretty much in uncharted waters on this end of the win curve in his tenure, so he may try to maximize their options now. I don’t think we really know how he’ll react, because the direction of the franchise changes even when you’re really good.

6 years ago
Reply to  NastyNate82

All I know is that Hinch and Crane apparently had to do a lot of convincing Luhnow for him to give up Perez for Verlander at the deadline. Apparently, they thought he was being too precious with prospects.

So at least in the past, he really, really doesn’t like giving up prospects. Maybe that’s changed, but I don’t think he’s as flexible as, say, Jon Daniels (and not near the super-flexible GMs out there like Billy Beane).

Of course, now watch as he turns around and gives up one of his big two for Cole.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Thanks for the info on Perez, I didn’t know that. Seeing how Verlander worked out, that may have changed his mind on letting prospects go for the big return. Or at the least made him more receptive to the idea of letting someone like Tucker or Whitley go.

6 years ago
Reply to  NastyNate82

I should also say I don’t think he’s shown quite as much hesitation in giving up good-but-not-elite prospects. He traded Nottingham (and Mengden) for a Scott Kazmir rental a few years ago. He traded away Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana (and Josh Hader, who was seen as a future reliever then) for a package involving Carlos Gomez. He traded Velazquez and a few other guys for Ken Giles. None of those guys were considered elite prospects but they were all considered good (or okay, in Mengden’s and Hader’s cases).

But now that Perez is gone, Bukauskas and Alvarez are the next level down. That probably won’t be enough to get it done for Cole, not with the Yankees offering Frazier as a centerpiece.