Expectations poured down on Gerrit Cole unlike few Major League Baseball draftees before him. 

That tends to happen when you have a triple-digit fastball, are picked first overall and sign for an $8 million bonus, the highest ever in MLB draft history.

The only job that followed for Cole was living up to the hype. Billing it was the easy part. Fulfilling it, that would take some professional seasoning.

Now, nearly four years after the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Cole with their No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, the right-hander is emerging as the ace the franchise envisioned him becoming when they handed over that record-setting check.

Cole, through his first six starts this season, is 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA, a 2.63 FIP and is striking out 9.84 hitters a game, his highest rate as a major leaguer. He is also stranding baserunners 78.5 percent of the time—the league average is 72.9—and his 0.9 WAR, per FanGraphs, is up there with names like Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey.

Cole’s 95.3 mph average fastball velocity ranks second in the National League to Harvey, proving he is learning to pitch while not completely sacrificing his heat.

He was also named the National League Pitcher of the Month for April.

“He’s so talented, but works very hard to perfect his craft,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He is focused on being excellent. Not on being good or being a big leaguer. His focus is excelling. His focus is on being elite.” 

After a pair of so-so seasons with the Pirates, Cole is flashing that kind of ability. Over 41 starts in his first two seasons, the UCLA product had a respectable 3.45 ERA and 3.09 FIP, but his 105 ERA-plus rated him as barely above league average.

This season, things have changed for Cole, starting with his command and pitch selection. His percentage of first-pitch strikes has jumped up 7.2 percent from last season, and while his fastball velocity is slightly lower than it has ever been in the big leagues, he is throwing it more (69.6 percent compared to 66.7 last season), according to Baseball Info Solutions.

FanGraphs also tells us that Cole is getting hitters to swing at more of his pitches (47.8 in 2015 compared to 45 last year) and they are making less contact (76.8 compared to 78.3). His swinging-strike rate is also up to nearly 11 percent from 9.5 percent last season. Cole’s slider has also found a new gear, and his command of it is good enough to throw in any count. 

For a power pitcher whose success is connected to his ability to strikeout hitters, these jumps are indicative of his newfound success.

“His fastball actually got stronger as the game went on,” Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Mark Trumbo told The Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro two weeks ago after Cole pitched pitched 7.2 innings against them and gave up one run. “It’s a hard, boring one. It gets in on right-handers quite a bit and stays off the sweet part of the bat, at least. And a real good slider, a good swing-and-miss pitch late in the count.”

This kind of steady dominance is giving the Pirates a weapon that has foiled them in the postseason and one that several other National League teams possess—an ace.

Adam Wainwright twice dominated the Pirates in the 2013 postseason, and last season Madison Bumgarner threw a complete-game shutout against them in the NL Wild Card Game. And with Jon Lester and Johnny Cueto in Pittsburgh’s division, the Pirates tend to run into aces all over the place.

Cole’s emergence could be the vehicle with which to overcome those roadblocks. While the Pirates have had quality starters over their last two postseason runs—Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Vance Worley—they have lacked a shutdown ace, a pitcher who can go out and match an opposing team’s No. 1 inning for inning.

These changes and developments in Cole’s game are the evolution of a young pitcher emerging into an elite player. So far this season, he is producing the results the Pirates believed he would when they drafted him and plopped $8 million on the table.

The franchise has had four No. 1 overall picks in its history, and before Cole it took Kris Benson in 1996 and Bryan Bullington in 2002—infielder Jeff King was drafted first overall in 1986. Neither pitcher lived up to the hype or pressure. Cole is on his way to changing that trend.

“It’s time for him just to take the ball and go,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters. “He’ll write his own story along the way.”

If this season is an indicator, it could have a fairy-tale ending.


All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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