Soundtrack of a Prospect
I snuck out of work a little early to catch the biggest headliner Southern California had to offer this past Friday. No, I’m not talking about The Black Keys or Kings of Leon, two of the biggest acts performing at Coachella, one of the largest and most popular music festivals west of Rosenblatt Stadium. Instead of driving 130 miles east to Indio, I headed 30 miles north to Jackie Robinson Stadium, home to the 23rd-ranked UCLA baseball team and the stage of the country’s top amateur pitching – if not overall – prospect, Gerrit Cole. The Bruin righty was set to toe the rubber against Pac-10 rival and 20th-ranked University of Arizona Wildcats.
I knew the drive from Huntington Beach to Los Angeles would afford me time to listen to some tunes, so I prepared the trip with a “2011 Coachella” playlist, chock-full of the weekend’s performers. What follows is a breakdown of Cole’s performance along with concurrently performing acts from Coachella’s Friday set times.
But see we’re living in LA
Living within walking distance of Long Beach State’s Blair Field, I’ve been lucky enough to watch the collegiate careers of such hurlers like Jered Weaver (Long Beach State), Ian Kennedy (USC), and Ricky Romero (Cal State Fullerton), to name a few. While living in San Diego, I also checked out Friday night starts by Stephen Strasburg (San Diego State) and Brian Matusz (University of San Diego). I was excited to add Cole to the list of college arms I’ve witnessed up close.
Cole, who checks in at 6’4” and 220 pounds, is expected to be one of the first two picks in this June’s draft, improving on his 28th-overall selection by the Yankees in the 2008 draft. With what many consider three - if not four - “plus” pitches, Cole ranks third all-time (321) on the UCLA career strikeout list, trailing only former Bruin Alex Sanchez (328) and teammate Trevor Bauer (354).
I promised my buddy Jason, who I’m meeting for tonight's tilt, that I’d be there early so we could watch some of the pre-game action before the crowd arrives. Jason, being a University of Arizona alum, is just as excited to see sophomore Kurt Heyer pitch as I am to see Cole. Heyer, U of A's Friday night starter for a second-straight season, ranks third in the nation in strikeouts, so a low-scoring affair could be in the cards tonight.
Everyone was lurking on the streets
Well, so much for getting to sneak an early peek at Cole. I finally roll into the parking lot of Jackie Robinson Stadium with only a few minutes to spare before the 6:00 PM first pitch. Coincidentally, Friday's game marked the 64th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier and a few minutes before game time, this tidbit was brought up by the public address announcer, to which the entire crowd greeted with cheers.
As I made my way to the ticket booth to meet Jason, I feared that the turnout for this game was going to be pretty good, which should be expected for a Friday night game between two ranked teams and a legitimate college star on the mound. I was worried that a seat behind the plate among the scouts was out of the question, but as Jason and I walked up the steps along the first base line to the concourse, we were both pleased to see most had put their general admission tickets to use behind each teams' respective dugouts. We made our way to the third row, where I promptly set-up shop, doing my best "amateur scout scouting amateurs" impression.
Notepad, check. Game notes, check. Team stats from collegesplits.com, check. Stop watch, check. iPhone in camera mode, check. Stalker radar gun, no dice. But the two guns directly in front of me and the one next to me would work just fine.
It seems we lose the game
As we watched Cole toss the last of his warm-up pitches to begin the game, Jason turned to me and said "My Wildcats don't have a chance." I nodded in agreement, as Cole's delivery was anything but max-effort. Working from the far leftside of the rubber, his fastballs flew out of his right hand (three-quarter slot) with ease while registering a ho-hum 94 and 95 on the radar gun in front of me. The rest of Cole's body (athletic with a thick lower torso) followed right behind in a repeatable, smooth delivery.
Cole started the game as well as one could, striking out the first two batters looking and swinging, respectively, then getting catcher Jeff Bandy to fly out to shallow left-center.
As Heyer took to the hill and started his sequence of warm-up pitches, I noticed a stark difference between the two pitchers’ motions. Heyer, who’s listed at a generous 6’2” and 200, has a not-so-fluid, dipping motion towards the plate. “Looks like [Roy] Oswalt,” Jason says, and he’s right. Heyer’s velocity doesn’t look overly impressive, so I’m guessing his funky delivery, movement on pitches and ability to spot the ball are the factors leading to his mounting strikeout totals.
Not to be outdone by Cole, Heyer retires the side in order: ground-out, strikeout looking, strikeout looking. “Maybe we do have a chance,” Jason tells me as Heyer hops over the first base chalk line toward the Arizona dugout.
It’s coming to get you
Cole starts off the top of the second by throwing a 96-mph heater on the outside corner of the plate. There is a buzz around where we are sitting, as the scouts compare radar gun readings and scribble down notes after every pitch. It seems Cole has more guns pointing at him than Mussolini.
Cole breezes through the inning and the heart of the Arizona order, fanning two and getting a third to pop out in foul territory behind first base. Cole’s using his fastball to blow past hitters for strikes and also set them up to look silly when he unleashes his slider and change-up, both arriving at the plate with the same velocity (87 MPH) but with much different action: the slider travels on a more horizontal plane while the change-up seemingly adds weight a few feet from the bat and suddenly disappears from view.
I want you to take over control
At this point, Cole’s velocity on his fastball has been consistent and impressive, but not overpowering. He is, however, mixing his pitches well and keeping the hitters off balance, working the ball mostly on the inner and outer parts of the plate. Any mistakes seem to miss high with the fastball and away to right-hand hitters with his off-speed pitches. Cole has thrown quite a few balls out of the strike zone at this point but Arizona hitters haven’t been helping themselves, either fouling off the pitches or swinging and missing altogether. While calling Cole wild this early in the game would be unfair, he’s been effective while missing the plate.
With the game still scoreless in the top of the third inning, a Cole slider catches a little bit too much of the plate and Arizona’s Seth Mejias-Brean pokes a single to centerfield for the game’s first hit. In an all-to-familiar play since the NCAA’s latest imposed aluminum bat standards, Arizona tries to move the runner over by way of bunt, but the batter fouls out after a two-strike attempt. I understand scoring runs against Cole won’t be easy, but Arizona carries the third-best team batting average in the nation and their slugging percentage is good enough to rank 10th. Speedster 2B Bryce Ortega is given the green light to swing the bat and promptly turns on a 0-1 fastball and launches it over the shallow left fielder’s head, and one-hops over the wall for a ground-rule double. Back to the top of the lineup, Joey Rickard weakly grounds out to third base for the second out of the inning, but Mejias-Brean scores on the play. Wildcat 1B Cole Frenzel then golfs a weak liner down the first base line for a double, plating Ortega. Cole gets the ball back and pounds his fist into his glove in frustration. Detractors of Cole, especially when he prepped at Orange Lutheran, would bring up that he was immature or showed signs of frustration that would lead to trouble on the mound. To me, Cole’s reaction to the two runs was merely a sign of his competitive nature that I expected him to channel into a positive focus. Two pitches later and another out via the air (foul-out to 1B) and Cole was out of trouble. Through three innings, Cole has shown good command (no walks and only one three-ball count), five strike outs, only one well-hit ball and is facing a 2-0 deficit. So goes the life of a pitcher, right?
UCLA helps Cole out by scoring three runs in the bottom of the inning due to a string of five hits and one free pass issued by Heyer. Heyer’s fastball hasn’t been missing bats like Cole’s has but his movement is impressive and his fastball has been sitting between 90 and 92-mph.
I have been broken open
Jason and I spend the third inning chatting with the scouts surrounding us, including two representing the Seattle Mariners (who own the #2 overall selection in this year’s draft and could very well land Cole if Rice University’s Anthony Rendon is taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the first pick). Also in attendance are scouts from the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants. Sitting two rows behind me with a radar gun and notepad is a gentleman in a University of Vanderbilt visor and windbreaker. Vandy at the time of the game was ranked #1 by Baseball America but after dropping two of three against South Carolina over the weekend, the Commodores currently rank #4. No doubt Vanderbilt is looking towards NCAA Regional play and advance scouting against possible post-season opponents.
The fourth inning was of no interest, unless you are impressed by Cole striking out the side and hitting 98 on the gun twice. One of the Mariner scouts asks the non-uniformed Arizona Wildcat player in front of us who is charting the game if he thinks Cole will touch 100 mph and the teen nods yes and the scout concurs. Unfortunately, Cole wouldn’t hit triple-digits during the game, but it should be noted that he maintained 98-mph velocity in the 7th inning and 96-mph with his 123rd and final pitch of the game.
In the fifth, Mejias-Brean flies out – with only one game to draw conclusions from, it seems to me that Cole will be a fly-ball pitcher as a professional - then Arizona puts together back-to-back singles to bring up Rickard, who promptly deposits a 1-1 fastball over the leftfield fence for a three-run homer. Cole hangs his head for just a second before getting a new ball from the umpire but one can’t fault him on it…had Rickard been using a wood bat, it most likely would have been shattered into pieces but with an aluminum bat, he was able to turn on the ball and fist it 335 feet. The five runs would be all Arizona needed to tag Cole with the loss.
Tell me you're fine
Three batters into the sixth and I was convinced that this was going to be Cole’s last inning. A one-out error by his shortstop caused Cole to drop his head and slump his shoulders while he tried to collect himself on the mound. Arizona followed up with yet another weakly hit single, leaving runners at the corners.
During the earlier part of the game, Cole’s delivery to the plate out of the stretch was a consistent 1.28 seconds but now, at barely 80 pitches, Cole was up to 1.31 and 1.32 seconds to home. His slider was becoming flat and he was increasingly missing his spots. It seemed fatigue (or disappointment) had started to set-in. Then, Arizona decided to lay down a bunt to bring the runner at third home. The bunt rolled toward the left side of the mound and Cole pounced on it and with his momentum taking him towards the plate, he quickly flipped the ball to his catcher, who applied the tag just before the Arizona runner slid into home. “Out!” shouted the umpire and even over the roars of the home crowd, Jason and I could hear Cole grunt “Yeah!” and give his best Tiger Woods upper-cut fist pump.
As quickly as it had disappeared earlier in the inning, energy/adrenalin/confidence returned to Cole and he fanned the next Wildcat batter, the last pitch being a hard changeup that dove away from the batter. As Cole sprinted into the dugout, the scouts talked among themselves about Cole’s recovery during the inning.
So this is it then?
One scout returns to his seat after taking a break during the bottom-half of the sixth inning. Instead of holding a radar gun while we watch Cole take the mound in the seventh inning, the grizzled talent evaluator turns his attention to the steaming cup of chili he bought at the snack bar. The smell of the cheese and onions teases my empty stomach so I lean over to the scout and ask, “How would you rate the chili? It smells like a 70.” Without missing a beat, the scout plays along. “Usually it’s an 80 but the weather tonight is too warm, so it’s only a 60.”
Cole’s game is back on track, as he retires the side in order, including a three-pitch strikeout of Frenzel, capped off by a 87-mph back-door slider on the outside corner to freeze Arizona’s #2 hitter.
They seem to be leaning
First impressions of Cole when I saw him warming up in the bullpen before the game was that this is a big kid with girth in all the right places for a power pitcher: butt, quads and calves. After seeing him repeat his delivery pitch-after-pitch and field his position well, I was fully convinced of Cole’s athleticism. What I saw next left me (and Jason and the scouts and the fans and, most importantly, Robert Refsnyder) off-guard.
With one out in the top of the 8th, Refsnyder laced a single to right field. Throughout the game, Cole kept runners in check with casual tosses to first and flashed a double-move a few times when he was facing runners at the corners. After a few throws that caused Refsnyder to slide headfirst back to the bag, Cole showed a set of quick feet, firing a shin-high bullet to the bag, catching Refsnyder leaning and erasing the runner from the base paths. Cole gave another first pump as the ball was returned. One pitch later - a 96-mph four-seamer resulting in an infield pop-up – and Cole’s night was over.
There’s something in the air tonight
During the drive home, I didn’t listen to any music. I replayed most of the night in my head, trying to figure out the negatives I’d need to bring up when breaking down Cole’s performance. As I parked my car, I checked the UCLA website for the night’s boxscore to compare with my game charts. The final stats, along with my scribbled down notes, left me with barely, if any, red flags or weaknesses to assign the UCLA pitcher.
Cole’s final line: 8 innings, 123 pitches, 9 hits, 5 runs (all earned), 0 walks, 11 strikeouts. Of the 33 batters faced, Cole threw 22 first-pitch strikes. He gave up a hard-hit, ground-rule double, a college-bat home run and that was about it. His velocity and movement confirmed what all the scouting reports had said. Physically, Cole looked the part of a top-notch prospect. Sure, it wasn’t his best outing of his young career and it wasn’t a game I’ll tell my grandchildren about ... the chili, on the other hand … but he flashed enough brilliance to show why many expect him to become the top pitching prospect the minute he signs with his new Major League team.
So there you have it, the soundtrack of a prospect. Cole is clearly no one-hit wonder and, based on the hype and performance I witnessed, he’ll be music to a team’s ear come June.