“Reds? You don’t mean Communists, do you Sam?” — from the greatest comedy ever put on film, Fletch
Gerrit Cole is a very good pitcher. Everyone’s level of just how good Cole is may vary (mine is that he’s a low-end #1), but it’s not in dispute that the Pirates are a better team when he’s pitching than when he’s not. With one exception — any time he pitches against the Cincinnati Reds.
If the rotation holds, as I’m sure it will with the Pirates wanting to keep their ace pitcher on steady 5 days, Cole will pitch Sunday against his nemeses, the Cincinnati Reds. In Cole’s short, yet excellent, career, he has yet to win against them. Not only does he not have a win, his stats against them are by far the worst than against any other team he has faced multiple times.
In seven starts, Cole is 0-5 with a 5.30 ERA. In those 7 starts, he has pitched just 37-1/3 innings, given up 46 hits, 23 runs (22 earned), walked 14, struck out 42, and given up 5 homers. The five home runs allowed is interesting from a pitcher that is stingy with homers allowed, as he has given up just 32 in career spanning 555 innings to date. Those five homers are tied for the most allowed to any opponent, but with the Cardinals he’s pitched 23 more innings against. Check out this breakdown of Cole’s stats versus every opponent, from Baseball Reference (click to embiggen):
Here’s another way to demonstrate his issues with the Reds. Against the Reds, Gerrit Cole has allowed a triple slash line of .309/.366/.490 (OPS 856). To put that in perspective, he has turned the Reds into a complete lineup of 2016 Gregory Polancos, with his .283/.356/.497 (OPS 853) batting line this season. Needless to say, that is also the highest for any team that he has faced more than once.
And this isn’t a new thing either. Cole has been bad against them from the start. Well, almost the start. Even though he made 19 starts in 2013, he somehow didn’t face the Reds for the first time until the 2014 season. Last year was especially awful in his four starts, as he allowed a cumulative line of .337/.391/.566, but here’s the year-by-year breakdown:
So what is it? The Reds of 2014-15 were good, but it’s not like they were rolling out All-Star after All-Star. Sure, Joey Votto exists and is fantastic. Yes, Todd Frazier tortured the Pirates frequently. But the rest of the lineup was pretty pedestrian those two years, with a lot of guys with low batting averages and non-threatening triple-slash lines. And this year, the Reds are even worse as they are in the midst of a rebuild.
You can’t even blame it on pitching in Cincinnati. Although he hasn’t been great by any stretch of the imagination, five of his seven starts have been there and he’s produced the following line — 0-3, 4.55 ERA, 27 IP, 30 H, 9 BB, 33 K, 3 HR allowed. It should be noted that on September 28, 2014, he pitched one of the finest games of his career that day in Great American Ball Park with 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 12 K, only to get a no-decision in a 4-1 loss. Cole and Johnny Cueto locked up head-to-head, but Cole had to watch as Tony Watson and Justin Wilson combined to blow it the 8th inning by giving up 3 hits and 1 walk to lead to three runs.
That means he’s been even worse in PNC Park. In his two starts at home versus the Redlegs, Cole has gone 9-2/3 innings, given up 16 hits, 8 earned runs, allowed 5 walks, and struck out 9 with two homers leaving the friendly confines of PNC Park. That’s a ghastly 7.45 ERA for a guy with a career ERA of 3.01.
Three of the Reds better hitters the past three years (Votto, Bruce, and Frazier in 2014/2015) are all good fastball hitters, Cole’s most prominently thrown pitch. But it’s not as if they’re hitters that feast solely on the heat. Cole’s slider is his out pitch and both Frazier and Bruce have negative run expectancies against the slider. Yet here we are, still confused as to how the Reds have mastered Cole.
Maybe the simplest expectation is a shrug of the shoulders and a “hey, baseball.” That lack of being able to pin something with facts is maddening to a person like me, but it seems as if every hero has their villain. Madison Bumgarner has homered multiple times off Clayton Kershaw. Yu Darvish is powerless against the A’s. AJ Burnett couldn’t pitch in Busch Stadium. It just happens. Hopefully on Sunday, Gerrit Cole will be able to slowly climb the mountain against the Reds for his first victory.