Friday night was a busy one in Major League Baseball. Albert Pujols recorded his 3,000th hit, the Dodgers no-hit the Padres, the Yankees walked off against the Indians after blowing two late leads. And so we can forgive anyone who missed the most impressive performance of the evening: Astros starter Gerrit Cole striking out 16 batters in a complete-game, one-hit shutout of the Diamondbacks.
Cole’s outing Friday was certainly his best of the season (and probably the best of any pitcher this season), but it was no aberration. On the year, the 27-year-old righty boasts a 1.42 ERA in seven starts, with MLB bests in strikeouts (77) and FIP (1.55). He has quite possibly been the best pitcher in baseball this season, fulfilling the potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and the fourth-place finisher in 2015 NL Cy Young voting.
While everyone in baseball has known for years that Cole possesses this kind of potential, the righty’s results early on this season have surely come as a surprise to those who watched him pitch the past two years in Pittsburgh. Cole’s production slipped steadily with the Pirates, from All-Star level in 2015 to mid-rotation caliber in 2017. His walk rate rose. His strikeout rate fell. More and more balls began to clear the fence. By the time Pittsburgh dealt him to Houston over the winter in exchange for an underwhelming package led by third baseman Colin Moran and pitcher Joe Musgrove, it was unclear whether the Astros were getting a competent starter or a top-shelf ace.
Well if early returns are any indication, Cole needed only a few tweaks to reclaim his early-career form. He moved away from the two-seam fastball Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage taught him, in favor of his four-seam, while also throwing more breaking balls than ever before. And that revamped pitch mix has worked wonderfully. According to FanGraphs, Cole’s fastball has been the very best in baseball this year, while his slider and curveball have been plus pitches as well.
Last year, the Astros revitalized Justin Verlander and turned journeyman Charlie Morton into a World Series hero. Now they seem to have pulled off a similar trick with Cole.
Obviously Cole is unlikely to maintain 1.42 ERA over the course of the season. But if his turnaround proves legit, the Astros will have acquired an ace pitcher at the cost of a solid young third baseman and a swingman. As if the defending champs needed any more help.