UCLA's Cole makes pitch to be Pirates' top pick
UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole has a fastball that stays in the 93-96 mph range, even when he goes deep into games.
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LOS ANGELES -- No one in the nation, not instructors, not scouts, has a better feel for the pitching of UCLA flamethrower Gerrit Cole than the young man on the receiving end.
So, amid all the reports that trail any prospect with a chance to be the No. 1 pick in Major League Baseball's amateur draft -- which belongs to the Pirates June 6 -- perhaps the most important evaluation comes from a single word uttered through the mask of catcher Steve Rodriguez.
That happens when Cole puts all of his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and golden right arm into a darting, 98-mph fastball that can look unfair at the collegiate level.
"I've learned how to handle it over the years because I've been catching most of his games and bullpens since our freshman year," Rodriguez said. "But, man, there are still times, because of his movement, where it'll hit the wrong part of the glove, and I really feel it."
Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: Root Sports, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (1-4, 4.14 ERA) vs. LHP Wandy Rodriguez (1-3, 4.26).
Key matchup: Maholm vs. the first two innings. His ERA is 6.00 in the first, 9.00 in the second.
Of note: Second baseman Neil Walker has 13 hits in the past seven games after going four consecutive games without a hit.
There is more to Cole than the fastball that stays in the range of 93-96 mph and registers a strike 68 percent of the time. He has a curve with a heavy finishing break. He has an 88-mph slider, about 2 mph harder than most in the majors. And, in the past few months, he has found a changeup that one American League scout recently compared to the trademark pitch of the New York Mets' Johan Santana.
Some even compare Cole to Stephen Strasburg, the once-in-a-generation pitching phenom taken No. 1 overall by the Washington Nationals two years ago.
Thing is, Strasburg needed elbow surgery shortly thereafter, a painful reminder of how unpredictable pitching can be.
What makes Cole most popular on the UCLA campus, apparently, is that he is focused only on the Bruins, not the Pirates, Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks or any other team that might draft him. To that end, Cole declined an interview request from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, just as he had from the Seattle Times, Arizona Republic and New York Times.
That is unusual for an elite prospect. The other clear candidate for No. 1, Rice University third baseman Anthony Rendon, is being interviewed by publications nationwide, even basement-run blogs. And it might suggest that Cole has trouble handling pressure.
Not so, those closest to him insist.
"Gerrit's handled this well, and that's because he's been through it," UCLA coach John Savage said, referring to Cole having been drafted by the New York Yankees in 2008 before choosing college. "You're talking about someone who's had a lot thrown at him for a 20-year-old junior."
The Yankees took Cole, a native of Santa Ana, Calif., in the first round, 27th overall. But, even though he grew up and remains a fan of baseball's most successful franchise -- as a child, his picture appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger holding up a sign reading, "I'm a Yankee forever!" -- he rejected them.
"That still amazes me," Savage said. "But he's close with his family, and they knew this was best."
Cole is a team captain, and teammates call him a vocal leader.
"He's one of the best," Rodriguez said. "He wants to see our team succeed more than himself. You can see that with how he cheers for us when he's not pitching. I don't ever hear him talk about the draft."
"It's a major challenge," Savage said. "Our draft is like no other, at the end of our regular season but before the College World Series. And, being here in L.A., there's tons of media, autograph requests, a mock draft every other week from Baseball America or ESPN ... you'd better have blinders on."
There also are "minimum 15-20 scouts watching every game," Savage said. That includes, he added, the Pirates attending all his starts this season.
Cole has a 3.45 ERA in 11 starts this season, back-to-back perfect games carried into the seventh inning March 4 and 11, complete games April 1 and 8, and 81 strikeouts with only 15 walks in 76 innings. For his career, his ERA is 3.25, and his 338 strikeouts are second on UCLA's all-time list.
But not all has gone smoothly. As a freshman, Cole went 4-8 despite a 3.49 ERA and took it hard.
"Being able to taste failure, it makes you kind of want to throw up," Cole told Baseball America last month. "It makes you just hate the game."
He soon rediscovered the love and, this spring, found a new level. With improved conditioning and better use of his lower body for torque, his command of the fastball increased and the changeup went from complementary to "plus-plus," a scout's highest grade.
Nothing has impressed Savage more than the endurance.
"He sits in that 93-96 range the whole game," Savage said. "Sometimes, there's even a spike. He holds his velocity unlike anybody I've ever seen. It's just a special, special arm."
That also was because some extra effort was removed from his delivery upon leaving high school.
"There's a flow now. He came to us as an arm that could strike people out. Now, he's a pitcher."
As for the Strasburg comparisons ...
"This is a different delivery, arm action, pitches ... when I see Cole, I don't think of Strasburg. And dominance-wise, he's not quite there."
That has shown of late: Cole has been tagged with 18 runs in his past three starts, all losses. After the most recent start a week ago, he fired his cap into a trash can outside UCLA's locker room.
"I don't have any answers," Cole told reporters that night. "The overall goal this year was to pound the zone. I've been getting ahead of guys. It's just that the ball's getting hit around the park."
Savage dismissed it as a minor matter of not pitching inside enough. Cole's stuff and velocity have been just as sharp as early in the season.
Most services rank Rice's Rendon the No. 1 draft prospect, and there is cause: After a slow start from offseason ankle surgery, he is batting .356 with four home runs and an astonishing .558 on-base percentage, fueled by pitchers avoiding him for an NCAA-high 63 walks. He also is superb defensively.
Still, there are concerns about two major ankle injuries, a sore shoulder that has limited his duty to designated hitter much of this season, and a smallish 6-foot, 180-pound frame that might make him injury prone.
Baseball America editor Jim Callis consistently has ranked Rendon first, though he recently acknowledged that "Cole is making a push" at No. 2. ESPN's Keith Law has it the other way, calling comparisons between Cole and Strasburg "reasonable" and writing two weeks ago that "there is absolutely no question" Cole is No. 1.
The Pirates are not commenting on any specifics of their No. 1 pick, but they are known to be focusing heavily on these two, while still not ruling out others. There is internal concern about Rendon's physical stature and health, and there is concern about Cole simply because he is a pitcher.
Both are represented by super-agent Scott Boras, meaning they will command top dollar. That is certain to be $10 million and up, which would be the greatest one-time expenditure in franchise history, and it presents this choice:
The team can go for the position player, with history showing he is more likely to contribute in some capacity in the majors. Third baseman Jeff King, the Pirates' No. 1 overall pick in 1986, was an example of a serviceable if unspectacular player. If Rendon turns out great, so much the better.
Or the team can prioritize pitching, as the Pirates did last year with Jameson Taillon at No. 2 overall. The Pirates have posited consistently that nothing is harder to acquire than elite starting pitching prospects, and Cole would be added to Taillon, Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie.
Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager, said the team's approach will not change at No. 1.
"Our philosophy is to take the player we like the most at the time of our selection," Huntington said. "We have approached the past three drafts with that philosophy, and we will attack the fourth draft with the same philosophy."
Savage bristled at the notion that Cole would be a health risk.
"He's never missed a start at UCLA, and his delivery has only gotten cleaner," Savage said. "My own view is that he's a guy who wants to be in the majors in just a few months, and he'll get there. The evolution of Gerrit Cole is only halfway to where it's going to be."
First Published May 6, 2011 12:00 am