A.J. Burnett will return to the mound tonight in Pittsburgh, which gave the Pirates a chance to get creative with their rotation. They decided to use this opportunity to give Gerrit Cole a break by skipping him a start. He normally would have started on Friday, but will now be pushed back to next Tuesday against the Cubs.
On the surface, it might seem strange to skip your best starter all year, especially when the team is 4.5 games back in the NL Central. It does make sense to move Cole back for a few different reasons. The obvious one would be the upcoming schedule.
Under the old schedule, Cole would have faced the Brewers on Friday, and would have been lined up to pitch against the Cubs at home, the Rockies on the road, the Cubs on the road, and the Reds at home. That schedule would have still allowed him to pitch the Wild Card game on five days rest, but it would have skipped Cole during the biggest remaining series — the Cardinals at home at the end of September.
Cole is now lined up to pitch at home against the Cubs on the 15th, followed by a road game against the Dodgers on the 20th, a road game against the Cubs on the 25th, and the final home game against the Cardinals on the 30th. He would also have an extra break before the Wild Card game, pitching on seven days rest.
The schedule makes a lot of sense, as you swap out the Rockies and Reds for the Dodgers and Cardinals, with the latter being more important matchups that Cole should be pitching in.
But there’s another factor here with Cole, and that involves his workload. He’s currently at 180.2 innings, which is getting close to his 2013 totals of 196.1 innings between Triple-A, the majors, and the post-season. Perhaps more importantly, he has thrown 2,816 pitches on the season, which is approaching the 2013 total of 2,955.
“We’ll look to be creative as we move forward,” Neal Huntington said on Sunday when talking about the workloads for Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. “We feel like both are in an acceptable range. They certainly don’t want the ball taken out of their hands, ever, and we need to respect that. At the same time, our goal is to make sure these guys are very productive pitchers for years to come.”
Huntington noted that the Pirates don’t just look at innings and pitches, but factor in a lot of variables, and treat every pitcher as an individual case. That said, even with skipping a start, the projected regular season workload for Cole looks like it’s going to be high, and that doesn’t include the playoffs.
“We’re very cognizant of the pitches and the innings count of all of our pitchers. Our relievers and our starters,” Huntington said. “Clint [Hurdle] does a fantastic job with the bullpen, and very few outings three in a row. Counting ups, pitches, stress workload. We do the same thing with the starters, but it just doesn’t get as much attention. Clint’s done a nice job when possible to get a starter out an inning early, versus running him out there any longer. Our deeper bullpen has allowed us to do that.”
Huntington noted that the Pirates are trying to find a balance between trying to get the best position possible for the post-season, and staying strong for the post-season. It appears this move for Cole accomplishes both. Not only are they able to skip him a start and reduce his workload, but they’re also able to line him up against their toughest opponents down the stretch. But skipping that one start should be the limit as long as Cole is productive.
“He’s going to get to a different place he’s never been before regardless,” Hurdle said. “We’re aware of that. As long as he’s pitching sharp, we’re going to let him pitch. And when there’s times we feel the move needs to be made to take him out, we’re going to move accordingly. We’re aware of the situation he’s in.”
Fortunately, Cole has been productive lately. Three of his last four starts have gone at least seven innings, with only one combined earned run between the outings. That includes his recent seven shutout innings against St. Louis. As long as he keeps pitching like this, the Pirates will have no reason to further limit his workload.