June 28, 2013
A Look at Rooks Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler
Two of the top pitching prospects in the minor leagues made their debuts this month, simultaneously relinquishing their prospect status while announcing their presence to the National League. Let's take a look at the opening acts of Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler, a pair of high-end draft picks who share a number of traits on the mound.
The component stats fail to impress, and the K rate in particular falls short of the standard for an elite starting pitcher. Cole struck out just 6.2 batters per nine innings at Indianapolis this season, and his MLB strikeout rate is downright Guthrian, yet he continues to keep runs off the scoreboard. Despite his modest bat-missing skills, Cole has consistently demonstrated an ability to induce weak contact, with low hit rates and a stinginess toward homers throughout his professional tenure. He has walked just a single batter in his first 18 frames of big-league ball, though his average of 3.3 free passes per nine over 200 minor-league innings is a potential harbinger of regression.
The right-hander made headlines with his triple-digit heat in last Friday's start versus the Angels, cranking up the gas to 100 mph on seven different pitches—Matt Harvey is the only other starter to crack 100 mph this season, and he’s done it just once. Yet the end result of those pitches was three fouls, three pitches taken for a ball, a called strike on 0-0, and a groundout. The most impressive aspect of those offerings may have been the fact that they had movement in addition to heat, with some pitches featuring pronation that earned sinker labels from Brooks Baseball.
Everything that came out of Cole's hand was thrown hard. All but two of his first 38 pitches cracked 94 mph, and the two slower offerings still clocked in at 90-92 mph. His slider averaged 92 on the gun, which is sick, and his five curveballs were the only pitches that sank below 89 mph.
As impressive as those numbers appear in isolation, major-league batters can time just about anything if they see it enough times, and Cole's lack of pace-changing pitches allowed the Angels' hitters to stay balanced and honed on heat. He has mixed it up with more regularity in his other starts, but 73 percent of his pitches have been classified as fastballs so far this season, and the slider had yet to make an official appearance prior to the game against Anaheim.
Mechanics Report Card
The 6'4”, 240-pound right-hander has made some improvements to his delivery since last season's assessment of his minor-league performance. Cole’s balance has improved to near plus-plus levels, as he has essentially eliminated the lean-back from maximum leg lift into foot strike as well as improved the consistency of his stability. His torque is already plus-plus, with a five-point jump from last year's assessment thanks to some additional delay of his trunk rotation, which allows the hips to open up even farther prior to firing his bullets. The elite velocity comes from the combination of that hip-shoulder separation along with his excellent arm strength, and he is able to sustain excellent posture despite the increased rotational energy near release point.
The improvements in multiple categories are strong indicators for Cole's development, but his delivery is not without its flaws. The momentum is still well below average, as he slows down during his second gear (after max lift), which acts to limit his stride as well as his release distance. That said, his release-point extension is better than it was last season, as he does a better job of delaying foot strike during the late phases of momentum while his extra delay of upper-body rotation also acts to increase his distance. Cole has a simple yet efficient delivery, though the modest extension gives batters a longer look at the baseball when compared to a pitcher such as Harvey or fellow 2011 draftee Jose Fernandez.
Wheeler has the minor-league K rate to back up his lofty draft status, though he has been a little too generous with the freebies. His Triple-A numbers have to be taken with big grains of salt given that he plays his home games in Las Vegas, which is known as much for its pinball-machine ballpark as its slot-machine economy—the staff carries a 5.09 ERA with a 1.55 WHIP, and Wheeler's 8.0 hits per nine innings is the lowest mark of any Vegas hurler with more than eight innings pitched.
Wheeler has posted crazy eights in his first two MLB starts, with a combined eight K's, eight walks, and eight hits allowed. Ben Lindbergh covered Wheeler's case of the jitters in the rookie's debut, and though raw stuff is not an issue for the young right-hander, he still has much room for development with respect to his pitch selection.
Wheeler is just slightly less fastball-philic than Cole, with velocity that is nearly as impressive. However, Wheeler has the same issue when it comes to effective velocity, with a repertoire of pitches that bunch together in terms of velo and a nearly identical rate of curveballs thus far in the majors. The young Met has thrown more breaking balls than Cole overall, due to extra reliance on the slider, but the biggest issue to rear its head is that Wheeler may have been tipping his curve to opposing batters with slower arm-speed when he went to uncle Charlie.
The numbers don't necessarily back up the rumors, as Wheeler surrendered just a single hit on the curve in his game against the White Sox. He did continue to struggle with command in Chicago, with a tendency to elevate all of his pitches, particularly the fastball, which is the easiest way to allow crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
Mechanics Report Card
At 6'4”, Wheeler is the same height as Cole, but the New Yorker carries 60 fewer pounds on his frame. Wheeler has above-average balance, though it can be somewhat inconsistent on a pitch-to-pitch basis. He and Cole share a couple more similarities, including torque as the greatest asset on the mechanics report card, and like Cole, Wheeler utilizes a greater proportion of hip rotation as compared to upper body to generate his pitch velocity. There is minimal load with the shoulder-axis in Wheeler's delivery, but he does a great job of delaying trunk rotation when he lines up his delivery.
The biggest strike against Wheeler is that he rarely lines up his delivery, with inconsistent timing that has been persistent throughout his pro career. Much of his inconsistency boils down to momentum—he used to use a haphazard pattern of momentum in which he had a strong move into max leg lift, but slowed down for the second gear (again like Cole), only to finish with an extra burst toward the plate. Wheeler has ironed out the odd momentum pattern this season with a smoother progression from first to second gear, but he’s still learning to harness his new timing pattern and tends to have a late arm when he gets into foot strike too early (as in the previous video of him walking the ultra-impatient Alexei Ramirez). Wheeler finishes the delivery with a pronounced flail after release point, including a glove that swings low and wide once he lets go of the baseball, but his mechanics are deceptively efficient prior to release on those pitches when he lines up the gears.