Gerrit Cole Is Not an Ace, but the Astros Don’t Need Him to Be

When Houston Astros owner Jim Crane hinted at the potential acquisition of another “high-end starting pitcher,” even after snagging Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers, the collective ears of H’Town’s faithful perked up.

It wasn’t for naught, as the Astros sent pitchers Michael Feliz and Joe Musgrove, as well as prospects Colin Moran and Jason Martin, to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Gerrit Cole. It was a clear move intended to defend the Astros’ World Series title in 2018, as the starting rotation packs on even more strength.

With Cole, of course, there are concerns that he won’t be that ace he was with the Pirates. Those concerns are frankly overblown, as Cole doesn’t need to be an ace — and that’s the beauty of this move.

Cole will be a high-end starter, surely. A team with less talent on the hill than the Astros would slot Cole into their number one or two spots, as his elusive off-speed pitches and serviceable fastball give off the allure of an ace.

Cole, though, won’t need to put up absurd, high-end numbers. With former American League Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel on the staff, as well as curveball connoisseur Lance McCullers and the quietly filthy Charlie Morton, Cole just needs to be average. And average Cole can be.

That’s exactly what we should be expecting out of Cole. Eat up innings, pitch to your strengths, and keep things simple. It’s one thing to be asked to provide a punch no other fourth starter can, but that’s on the club, not on the pitcher. Just be Gerrit Cole.

If this is what we’re looking for from a deployment and mental aspect, what is a fair statistical expectation? My mark is 15 wins, 3.3 WAR, an ERA that hovers around 3.80 or so, and 170 innings.

Cole has dropped off from his stellar 2015 form that saw him just barely miss the Cy Young finalists table in the National League. Last season, Cole had a borderline mediocre 12-12 record in 203 frames with an ERA of 4.26, a landslide from his 19-6, 2.68 ERA mark in 208 innings in 2015.

He isn’t going to get the same amount of innings as he would have with the Buccos, but the Astros offense is considerably better. Houston ranked first in OPS last season at .823, while Pittsburgh slid to 28th in MLB at .704.

His run support is projected to be higher, which will almost certainly mean more wins. Cole has historically pitched better with a lead as a Pirate, and he will have all kinds of cushion to pitch with as an Astro with their MLB-best offense.

With a career ERA of 3.50, a 3.80 expectation isn’t ridiculous. Cole will most likely finish his first season in Houston around that number, which isn’t a lofty expectation for better or worse. Morton compiled a 3.62 ERA last season, while McCullers totaled a 4.25 average.

Cole could end up somewhere in the middle of this, being aided by Minute Maid Park being demonstrably more pitcher-friendly than PNC Park. Therefore, a 3.80 ERA is the bar set for 2017. (Of course, while Minute Maid is overall more of a pitcher’s park than PNC, one of Cole’s biggest problems last year was the home run ball, and MMP is actually slightly skewed towards hitters in that category, while PNC significantly favors pitchers.)

Now for the innings, which are, in today’s game of elbow injuries and soreness, about as hard to project as anything. Cole has completed six or more innings in 97 of his 127 career starts, which is valuable in a league that doesn’t reward pitcher longevity anymore. If he pitches, say, 6.1 innings per game on average and makes 30 starts, you have 190 innings.

While all pitchers these days are at risk of injury, the 27-year-old made an NL-high 33 starts last year for Pittsburgh, which to a degree indicates good health. The 190-inning mark, still, is no sure thing, and if the Astros implement a six-man rotation or Cole struggles and falls into a bullpen role, our 170 number seems more realistic.

Come postseason time, Cole just needs to be that solid third or fourth arm who could spot up in relief in a pivotal late-series game, a la Brad Peacock. With a confident regular season and a dugout that seemingly meshes well, it’s possible that Cole can do so with ease.

All in all, Cole is not only a good fourth pitcher but better, and in that role, should flourish in a system with both veteran leadership and abundant youth.

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