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Pirates’ Cole went from prospect to project to MLB ace

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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers is on pace to throw 206 innings this season.
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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole ranks sixth in the National League in Wins Above Replacement and ERA. Cole is vying to become the Pirates' first 20-game winner since John Smiley in 1991.
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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
In 11 games this season at PNC Park, Gerrit Cole is 8-2 with a 2.76 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 712/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .240 off him in 262 at-bats.

Days after agreeing to a club-record $8 million signing bonus in August 2011, Gerrit Cole traveled to Bradenton, Fla., and entered Jim Benedict’s sliver of an office in the Pirate City complex.

Benedict, the organizational pitching guru, and Cole watched video of the No. 1 overall pick at UCLA. They watched video of elite major league starters. Deep into conversation, Benedict, a towering, sun-baked native Southern Californian, like Cole, offered a candid critique, and a choice.

“ ‘I know the organization drafted you as a starting pitcher, but your delivery and approach at UCLA has reliever written all over it,’ ” Benedict recalled. “I gave him a choice. I said, ‘We don’t have to do anything. You’ll start for a while, and you’ll end up as a setup man or closer.’ … (Or) ‘If you want to do all these things to be a top-end starter, we need to start now.’ ”

The critique was stunning for a prospect the Pirates hoped would become the club’s first 20-game winner since John Smiley in 1991, and perhaps its third Cy Young Award winner.

The difference between being a front-end starter and back-end reliever meant tens, if not hundreds, of millions to Cole, and to the organization in the form of performance value.

The front office had approved Benedict’s plan to help refine the raw material, the potential that was to turn Cole into an ace. But would Cole buy in?

What they learned is that behind Cole’s fiery competitiveness resides an intellectual curiosity and an ability to self-evaluate honestly, aiding him in his journey to the front of the Pirates’ rotation.

“I can take negative, confrontational information,” Cole said.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington learned Cole has what he calls “genuine self-confidence” which is a “realization that you don’t have all the answers.”

“The people who have genuine self-confidence are the ones driven to be elite,” Huntington said. “It’s the confidence to ask questions.”

Mechanics

Why was he being hit?

It was one of the first questions Cole raised. Despite his raw ability, despite prototype size and a 100 mph fastball, Cole lost more games (eight) than he had won (six) as a junior at UCLA. His undersized college teammate, Trevor Bauer, had better numbers. Cole suspected his pitch trajectory was too flat, allowing batters to see the ball too well.

In searching for a fix, Benedict saw a pitcher who was rushing his delivery.

Benedict began by having Cole imagine a box in front of the pitching rubber. He was to confine the beginning phase of his delivery — when breaking his hand from his glove and lifting his leg — within the invisible space.

“This allows you to have a firm front side, meaning the glove arm, head, shoulder and leg are in control,” Benedict said. “You can’t do that unless you load in the box.”

Every long-toss, every bullpen session, every live batting practice was recorded and analyzed. Benedict had Cole watch other pitchers, including a lot of Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens, who had similarities to Cole.

The mechanical changes still were unnatural to Cole early in 2013 when he posted pedestrian numbers at Triple-A, raising concern outside the organization.

“I had to fight 20, 21 years of doing it this way,” Cole said.

Now, Cole said the delivery has become “muscle memory.” The mastery of it has led to a career-best walk rate (2.01 walks per nine).

He has a career-high groundball rate (50.2 percent), thanks in part to career-best sink — 7.7 inches — on his four-seam fastball, according to PITCHf/x data. Cole’s future brother-in-law, Brandon Crawford, who grounded into a key double play against Cole in June, said, “I don’t remember him having as much movement, especially with the upper-90s fastball.”

The new delivery has allowed Cole to execute a back-foot slider to lefties, which has helped level his platoon splits. Lefties have swung and missed at his slider 20.5 percent of the time this season. Lefties have a .598 OPS against Cole.

Mets manager Terry Collins described Cole’s slider as “absolutely devastating” in May.

“The gifts came out,” Benedict said, “because the delivery was switched from rushing to holding.”

Focus

Why couldn’t he get out of his own way?

There was a time when Cole could not sleep after losses. To distract a restless mind in the early-morning hours, he turned to television — often opting for “House Hunters International” or survivalist programs.

“I’m always stressed about stuff,” Cole said. “I will take losses home that I didn’t even play in.”

He could not let go of results on the field. A missed pitch location, a bloop hit or an error could bleed into his next pitch. There often was frustration in the body language.

“I’m high strung,” Cole said.

“He’s going to try to be perfect, but it’s like I told him, ‘You’re really going to strive for that, but you have to realize you are never going to achieve it,’ ” pitching coach Ray Searage said.

One poor pitch was often affecting his next three, coaches said. Never let an opponent see you frustrated, they said. Act like every pitch has intent. He was reminded he controlled nothing after the ball left his hand.

Things would snowball. Cole allowed three or more runs in an inning five times in his first professional season.

But this season, he has allowed three runs in an inning twice.

Pirates catcher Chris Stewart has found an effective key word — “refocus” — during mound visits.

“(Saying), ‘Calm down.’ That’s like telling people ‘Shhhh!’ ” Stewart said. “For some reason, that just sends people over the top.”

Against the Washington Nationals last month, Cole allowed a third-inning home run to Michael Taylor. He scolded himself and kicked at the mound. Danny Espinosa followed with a single. Would he unravel?

Cole retired the next 11 batters.

“With a clear mind,” Cole said, “that’s when you start to get locked in. That’s when you get out of your own way.”

Defining moment

Why did he get hurt?

Cole had never dealt with an injury until he spent 70 days on the disabled list with shoulder and back issues last season. There was frustration and confusion as he searched for answers.

“One of the biggest things a pitcher can go through is nonsurgical shutdown,” Benedict said. “You learn so much in taking care of your arm, how you got here. … When you come out of it, there is an urgency I can’t teach. … (The DL trip) is a defining moment.”

This season, Cole committed to a shoulder-strengthening program. He often is drenched in sweat in the clubhouse from activation and cardio work. He’s one of the Pirates wearing the Zephyr Bioharness device, which monitors heart rate and energy consumption.

Cole was exposed to the idea of injury prevention when his father, Mark Cole, placed him on pitch counts and prevented him from year-round throwing growing up in Southern California, where year-round throwing, and max-effort pitches at showcases, remain the norm for top young arms.

“(Gerrit) said to me this year, ‘There are quite a few things I kind of wonder about, and I’m OK doing with them. I just don’t know if they are helpful,’ ” Mark Cole said. “(I said) ‘Well it doesn’t matter. If they’re not helpful, you will drop them.’ ”

Cole asked Searage how often the aces he played with threw between starts. The answer: less than Cole, who has cut his side-throwing by two-thirds, Searage estimated.

“(I’ve) already hammered that level of execution,” Cole said. “Now it’s, ‘How can I use this day to feel better the next day?’ ”

Awareness

How could he filter?

Mark Cole remembers Gerrit absorbing televised MLB games as a child in their Southern California home.

“He was very, very good at commenting on and recalling (sequences),” Mark said. “ ‘Did you see, Dad, so-and-so had (Derek) Jeter on a string when he threw this pitch?’ ”

Benedict was first aware of Cole’s recall gift during instructional league in 2011. Along the dugout railing in Scottsdale, Ariz., Benedict asked Cole who the opponent’s best hitter is. The answer: Mike Trout.

“What are you going to throw him first pitch?” Benedict said.

Said Cole: “Bust him in on the hands.”

Trout went hitless against Cole.

“I kind of knew then,” Benedict said. “People say baseball is boring because they don’t know how interesting it can be. … The human element: Why do we pitch in? Fear. … So when you enjoy that part of it, it separates you.

“I said ‘Gerrit, get way into this.’ ”

But when he arrived in the major leagues, he was faced with an avalanche of information from video to analytics. For a while, he digested everything. This season, Cole said, he has learned to “filter” information.

“(In the past) there was too much video, too much information, too much dissecting,” Cole said. “I’ve done a good job of not overcooking this year.”

He’s learned to filter. He’s learned to care better for his arm. He’s mastered his delivery — all helping him grow from a project to a burgeoning ace.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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