The Return of Gerrit Cole Could Help the Pirates Make the Playoffs
Baseball's "second-half" begins Friday, and with that comes the Pittsburgh Pirates' push for the playoffs. With a current record of 46-43, our projections give them just a 16.0% chance of making the postseason. This is the 17th-highest total, which means we don't expect them to be playing in October.
However, the Pirates have something -- or someone -- that can potentially change the tides for them in pitcher Gerrit Cole.
Cole has made 12 starts this season, but he hasn't pitched since June 10th, after the Pirates placed him on the disabled list after with a muscle strain in his right biceps.
He's now healthy and will face the Washington Nationals on Saturday. Cole's return is much-needed, especially for a Pirates squad that's clinging to slim playoff hopes.
Pittsburgh played 28 games since Cole went on the disabled list, going 14-14 to close out the first-half of the season three games above .500. Since starting pitchers only throw every fifth day, Cole wouldn't have been able to change the outcome of some of these games regardless of his health, but the difference in a few wins and losses can mean the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
Since making his debut in 2013, Cole has made 85 starts for Pittsburgh. His team has won 58 of those games, which comes out to a .682 winning percentage. Cole would have made at least five additional starts in June and July without his injury, and if the Pirates won just three of them -- a .600 winning percentage -- they would own a 49-40 record.
Granted there are plenty of other factors that go into our playoff projections besides simply a team's record -- and pitcher wins are nutty -- but every other club with between 46 and 49 wins this season has at least a 7.4% higher chance of making the playoffs than the Pirates.
This, in addition to likely needing to get to the magic number of 93 wins to make the playoffs, means instead of having to win 47 games in the second-half -- which would require Pittsburgh to post a .644 winning percentage -- the Pirates would have needed 44 wins and a .603 winning percentage instead. It still would have been a tall order, but a healthy Cole makes reaching the postseason at least a discussion.
The Rest of the Rotation
This is even more evident when we consider how the rest of Pittsburgh's starting staff has pitched this season.
Despite throwing just 68 1/3 innings, Cole owns a 1.6 Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), per FanGraphs, which is the best among Pirates' starters -- and it isn't even close. There have been 10 pitchers besides Cole to make at least one start for Pittsburgh this season. The table below shows their total number of starts and their combined fWAR.
These numbers are not heavily skewed by one pitcher either. The best fWAR besides Cole's is 0.3 for Jameson Taillon, and the worst fWAR is -0.4 for Jonathon Niese. In other words, the rest of Pittsburgh's rotation has been incredibly mediocre, making Cole's return all the more needed.
Cole owns a 2.77 ERA this season, whereas none of the other four pitchers to make at least 12 starts for the Pirates this season have an ERA below 5.13. Cole's 4.11 xFIP and 4.35 SIERA -- while suggesting that his ERA is lower than it should be -- are superior to all of the other four starters, except for Juan Nicasio (4.30 SIERA), but he's now pitching out of the bullpen.
Cole had his best season last year, posting 5.4 fWAR, which ranked ninth among pitchers. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Pirates won 98 games last season, and 25 of those 98 wins came during Cole's 32 starts. That comes out to a whopping .781 winning percentage. To put this in simpler terms, Pittsburgh lost just seven games last season when Cole got the start.
With Cole on the sidelines, the Pirates look much more like a .500 team than one vying for a spot in the postseason. And it's easy to understand why, since he's capable of making the game's best player look foolish.
Even with the return of Cole, Pittsburgh is still facing an uphill battle to make the playoffs, but with their best pitcher healthy and a track record of winning when he pitches, they can't yet be ruled out.