Can Gerrit Cole Make A Cy Young Push?

Gerrit Cole, the staff ace for the Pittsburgh Pirates and one of the best pitchers in baseball, has a chance to launch a late bid for the NL Cy Young Award starting tonight. He gets the national stage, in an ESPN showdown against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ already-canonized lefty, Clayton Kershaw.

It’s a perfect opportunity for Cole—he faces the best lineup in the National League, squares off against the hottest pitcher and faces the team who has Zack Greinke, the current Cy Young frontrunner.

This award is Greinke’s to lose, with his 11-2 record and 1.71 ERA. While I tend to downgrade Dodger pitchers a bit because of the advantageous dimensions of their home stadium, there’s no question that if the vote were held today Greinke would deserve to be a unanimous pick.

But there’s still two months to go, Greinke got dinged a bit in his last start and if there’s any slippage, Cole can make a late push. But he has to beat Kershaw on the national stage.

Between Cole, the two Dodger aces, Washington’s Max Scherzer and Jacob de Grom with the Mets there are five high-quality candidates for this year’s NL Cy Young. Cole leads everyone with 14 wins and his 2.29 ERA is third in the National League, trailing only Greinke and de Grom. Of these five, Cole and Scherzer are the only ones to work their home games in parks that are ideal for pitchers. That has to count for something.

Where Cole needs work, as far as I’m concerned is his innings. He’s currently 11th in the league in innings pitched, although with his start up tonight, he’ll probably be seventh by night’s end if he has anything close to a normal outing. While I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules about Cy Young criteria—every race is different—I would like to see him move into the top five.

Where the Pirate ace is going to need work as far as the people who actually vote is in the number of baserunners he allows. His WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is 1.10. This is good, but again, at 11th in the league, it’s not Cy Young-caliber. I personally don’t care—if a guy doesn’t give up runs, gets his innings in and wins games, he can load the bases every inning for all I care. But there is a significant chunk of voters that do care about this stat and Cole isn’t making any friends with his current ranking.

The odds are probably too stacked against Cole to win the Cy Young. Everyone is dependent on a Greinke slide, and Kershaw and Scherzer both have much higher name recognition. But a win tonight would give the Pirate ace a puncher’s chance.

More important is the opportunity that’s ahead for legacy-building in October.  No one remembers that Madison Bumgarner finished fourth in last year’s Cy Young balloting while Kershaw won both that award and the MVP. Bumgarner took over October like no one in the previous quarter-century. Kershaw imploded in the Division Series. Cole’s going to have a lot on his shoulders, down the stretch and in the postseason.

The Pirates are in great position to make the playoffs, but just like the last two years, are again looking at the wild-card. If form holds, this will be the third straight year the NL wild-card game has been at PNC Park. It’s getting so that they might as well just put that game on the schedule at the start of the year.

Last season, Cole did not pitch this game. The Pirates still had a shot at catching the Cardinals for the NL Central at season’s end, and manager Clint Hurdle threw Cole on the last day. It was a high-risk move that didn’t work. Pittsburgh still finished second and then were easily handled by Bumgarner in the one-game elimination. This year, with Pittsburgh firmly in command to get a wild-card, yet also five games back of the Cards, the odds are better that Hurdle can set his rotation and pitch Cole.

And if Pittsburgh is able to run down St. Louis, Cole will have to play an even bigger role than he already has. The Pirates are built to win with pitching—second in the NL in ERA, and seventh in runs scored. They just lost A.J. Burnett until mid-September. All the starters have to step it up a notch, Cole foremost among them.

The Pittsburgh ace doesn’t get the name recognition of Kershaw, Greinke or Scherzer, and doesn’t have the New York media ready to promote him, the way de Grom does. Gerrit Cole’s performance merits his inclusion among the game’s elite, but he’s going to have fight for every bit of recognition he gets.