Who were two hardest throwing starting pitchers in baseball in 2013? The correct answer is Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Danny Salazar of the Cleveland Indians, who each averaged a touch over 96 miles per hour. Miami Marlins hurler Nathan Eovaldi would have been a sufficient answer as well, but he’s far less interesting. Cole and Salazar made waves in their somewhat limited major league innings in 2013 with their big-time stuff. I’ll go out on a limb and say both are bona-fide aces in 2014.
The question is, which one is better?
Cole and Salazar come from different backgrounds. Hailing from UCLA, Cole is a blue-chip prospect with a classic pitcher’s build who was selected first overall in the 2011 Draft. He’s been a consensus Top 10 prospect since then. On the other hand, Salazar was an international signing out of the Dominican Republic back in 2006 who has never appeared on any Top 100 prospect lists, a fact I had trouble believing after seeing him pitch. At 6 feet and 190 pounds, he’s undersized for a starting pitcher, though his electric right arm might make that irrelevant.
Both have dominated the minor leagues, posting high strikeout rates and low ERAs. Salazar missed time in 2011 and 2011 after undergoing Tommy John Surgery, but he’s thrown 250 more minor league innings than Cole due to his early start.
After being called up in June, Cole won his first four games, though his performance was more average than spectacular. Through the All-Star Break he had rather pedestrian numbers, including a 3.89 ERA with strikeout rates of 14.5 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively. At the time he was utilizing his fastball on nearly 80 percent of his pitches.
In the second half, the Pirates took the kid gloves off, and Cole started using his devastating breaking ball more frequently. The results were impressive. His ERA dropped to 2.85, and his strikeout rate climbed to 25.3 percent, with a walk rate of 6.4 percent. Over five starts in September, Cole posted a 1.69 ERA with 39 strikeouts.
He made two starts against the St. Louis Cardinals in the Divisional Series, and while he lost Game Five to Adam Wainwright, Cole acquitted himself well, with a 2.45 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 11 innings.
Salazar made a spot start for the Indians in July, but didn’t get inserted into the rotation until August. Held to a strict pitch count, he threw just 52 innings in 10 starts, but they were a dominant 52 innings. He posted strikeout and walk rates of 30.8 percent and 7.1 percent, and managed a 3.12 ERA and 2.75 xFIP. Among starting pitchers that threw at least 50 innings, only Felix Hernandez could best his 70 xFIP-.
Salazar got the ball against the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card round, but a home run to Delmon Young did him in. If there was one weakness in Salazar’s game in 2013, it was his tendency to pitch up in the zone. He had a low 34.4 percent groundball rate and gave up 7 home runs.
Both pitchers were excellent in 2013, which young hurler will be better in 2014?
Here’s a table comparing the swing and miss rates on each of their pitches. As you can see, each pitcher is equipped with a full arsenal of pitches
Overall, Salazar had the higher swinging strike rate, 14.6 percent to 9.2 percent. In fact, he had the highest swinging strike rate of any pitcher to throw at least 50 innings by a wide margin. Francisco Liriano and Yu Darvish were the next closest at 13.2 percent, and 12.6 percent. Sure it’s a small sample, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.
Though Cole has the top prospect pedigree, Salazar may have better raw stuff. His split finger is an excellent pitch, and combining that with his slider gives him options against both righties and lefties. Cole’s change also shows good potential, though he uses it infrequently.
Salazar may have to learn a two-seamer that he can throw down in the zone. With his elite velocity pitching up in the zone gets whiffs, but it also makes him prone to the long ball. Cole has the advantage of a good two-seamer which gets plenty of groundballs and helps keep his pitch count down.
The Steamer Projection is very high on Salazar, and a little more reserved with regards to Cole.
I’ll take the over on that for Cole, as I place more weight on his second half results than what he produced in Triple-A and his first seven big league starts. It looks as if the Pirates pushed Cole to focus heavily on getting groundballs and being efficient with his fastball early on. After that, they cut the reins, and Cole started whiffing hitters with regularity.
Still, I say Salazar is the better pitcher in 2014. His home run problem should be an easy fix, and the combination of his top-notch stuff and elite results in 2013 are just too good to ignore. With an Indians rotation that already lost Scott Kazmir and will likely lose Ubaldo Jimenez, he’ll be counted on to deliver in a big way.