This year, two starting pitchers taken in the first round of the 2011 MLB draft have arrived on the big-league scene with a splash: Jose Fernandez (14th overall), who has been pitching out of the Marlins’ rotation since the start of the season; and Gerrit Cole (1st overall), recently called up by the Pirates. Both have fared well in their debut seasons.
Though Cole has matched Fernandez’s win total in his first four starts, Fernandez is pitching alongside an anemic Marlins offense – 71 wRC+, dead last in the majors. Meanwhile, Cole’s Pirates became the first team to 50 wins last week and took the NL Central lead from the Cardinals.
Gerrit Cole is heavily reliant on hard pitches, throwing them 77.0% of the time according to data from Baseball Info Solutions. If he qualified for the ERA title, that would rank 9th in the league.
Four-seam fastballs, two-seam fastballs, sinkers and cutters are all considered hard pitches here; curveballs and sliders are considered breaking pitches, with changeups and splitters compiled under offspeed pitches.
Cole has good reason to throw hard – his fastball averages 96.3 mph, which leads qualified pitchers today, besting flamethrowers like Matt Harvey (95.6 mph) and Stephen Strasburg (95.4 mph). With the exceptions of Bartolo Colon, Lance Lynn[i], and Cole, every pitcher on this list relies on some sort of cutter in addition to their fastball. Lance Lynn turns out to be a good comparison for Cole’s style based on pitch mix.
The differential between both pitchers’ fastest and slowest pitch (the curveball) is slightly more than 13 mph. However, Lynn’s slider – which he throws about 3% more often than Cole, in exchange for fewer changeups – splits the difference slightly better than Cole’s slider, which is only 5 mph slower than his fastball and 8 mph faster than his curveball. Perhaps maintaining that spread of speeds within his range – or just pitch progression, or his approaches against LHH versus RHH – is why despite the lower velocity, hitters make less contact against Lynn than they do versus Cole.
Hitters are making much more contact on Cole outside of the strike zone, but they aren’t necessarily hitting him harder – both he and Lynn give up line drives around 22% of the time on batted balls, but Cole’s ground ball percentage is 50.0% in contrast to Lynn’s 38.4%. Lynn’s 2.58 K/BB is close to Cole’s 2.75, but Lynn has built his mark around more strikeouts (8.85 K/9) and more walks (3.43 BB/9) than Cole is currently accumulating (4.07 K/9; 1.48 BB/9). For those reasons, if Cole can strike out more batters, maintain his low walk rate, and continue to induce ground balls, he’ll probably outperform Lynn during his career – a favorable comparison, indeed.
As for Jose Fernandez, much has been made of his sinking fastball, but his curveball is what’s separating him from the pack. He’s fifth among all qualified pitchers today by percentage of curveballs thrown, at 23.1%. However, he’s in rare company in that he also features his slider 8.6% of the time.
This makes finding a solid comparison for Fernandez extremely difficult. However, setting speed aside, he could be likened to Athletics starter A.J. Griffin or Tigers starter Doug Fister.
Both pitchers do differ with Fernandez in significant ways: Griffin throws his curve 7.6% less often than Fernandez, and it’s seemingly more of a slow curve; Fister throws much more of his slider and changeup, and fewer fastballs relative to Fernandez. But all three players induce swings and contact at similar rates.
[i] This depends on the pitch-tracking system used to compare Lynn. Pitch f/x data from Brooks Baseball shows Lynn throwing a cutter 8% of the time this year, while Pitch f/x and Baseball Info Solutions data on Fangraphs say he doesn’t throw one.