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RHP AJ Cole (Oviedo HS, Florida)
- 91-93 FB/94-96 peak; has reportedly been as high as 98
- potential plus 76-80 KCB
- average 84-88 SF that acts as a change
- 78-81 SL that appears to come and go from outing to outing (?)
- projectable frame at 6-5, 190 pounds
- Zach Wheeler and Rick Porcello comps
Lots to like about AJ Cole’s game, clearly. His biggest strengths include his present plus fastball velocity, a potential plus knuckle curveball, and that wildly projectable 6-5, 190 pound frame. For a prep pitching prospect, that’s about as close to the holy trinity as you can get. I’m just about positive that I’ve seen Cole throw a splitter and I can’t remember ever seeing him throw a true change, so I’m doing a bit of guesswork when I claim he uses that mid-80s split as a de facto changeup. Without any legit industry source backing me up, I’ll hedge my bets and stick with calling the pitch a “splitter that he uses as a facsimile for a change” for now. Whatever you want to call the pitch, it’s probably a stretch to call it anything more than average right now. That may sound like a knock, but remember how rare it is to see a high school prospect with three present average or better pitches. An average third pitch may not be a negative, but it does highlight a clear area where Cole could stand to improve this spring. There are currently conflicting reports on the existence of Cole’s slider (I personally haven’t seen it), but smarter men than I have clocked it anywhere from 78-81 miles per hour. The similar velocities of the slider and his knuckle curve has me wondering if Cole actually throws two distinct breaking balls at all. If I had to guess, I’d say his actual repertoire consists of a fastball, a spike curve sharp enough that it’s been confused with a slider, and a changeup with above-average downward movement that may or may not be held with an actual splitter grip. A rough conservative breakdown of that arsenal might look something like this:
I see a lot to like in the Cole’s delivery and throwing mechanics. His arm action seems nice and easy and he appears to have little trouble repeating the same consistent 3/4 delivery from pitch to pitch, batter to batter. The one negative thing I can say about Cole’s mechanics is that he seems to rush through each step of his delivery a heck of a lot quicker than most guys I’ve seen. That last problem seems like one that can be corrected with good professional coaching, but that’s an evaluation that will be made on a team-by-team basis this spring.
Speaking of pitching mechanics, allow me to make an admission of apathy on the subject. It’s true, I’m largely indifferent to pitching mechanics. My pet theory is that 99.99% of the baseball watching population can only derive so much usefulness from evaluating a pitcher’s throwing mechanics. In my estimation, all pitching deliveries fall somewhere along a bell curve that looks a little bit like the following – maybe 15% of the time a pitcher’s mechanics are so perfect (Nolan Ryan, for example) that it is abundantly clear whatever he is doing is working and will continue to work going forward, roughly 15% of the time a guy’s mechanics are so obviously cringe-worthy that you can’t help classify his arm as nothing more than a ticking time bomb, and then there is that big fat middle 60% or so that falls somewhere in between the two extremes. If a pitcher has mechanics in that middle part of the curve, I’m willing to change my personal focus from analyzing each individual part of the setup, windup, and follow through (yeah, like I can really do that anyway…) to worrying about a) does the pitcher have any kind of track record of arm problems, b) can the pitcher repeat whatever they are doing on the mound pitch after pitch after pitch, c) does the pitcher maintain velocity of his fastball and sharpness of his breaking balls, and d) does the pitcher tip off the batter by showing clear differences in arm speed when throwing different pitches. Those four things are what I care about most. That is, of course, unless something obviously good or bad (highly subjective, I know) jumps out at me. If enough people I talk to/read like a certain guy’s mechanics, I’m sold. If, in addition to getting a passing mark from somebody I trust, the pitcher is able to repeat his delivery and maintain a consistent velocity while doing so, I’m sold twice over.
The popular industry comp of Porcello works in a lot of ways, but I much prefer sizing the young Florida righthander up with Porcello’s Detroit teammate, Justin Verlander. Verlander represents Cole’s ultimate upside as a big leaguer, but it’s interesting to compare the two pitchers at similar points in their development. Despite possessing a 93 MPH peak velocity fastball, Verlander wasn’t even drafted coming out of Goochland HS (VA). Scouts questioned his shaky control and inconsistent mechanics while also citing concerns over how his 6-4, 170 pound high school frame would hold up as a professional. He embarked on an intense workout program upon enrolling at Old Dominion that helped move him closer to the finished product that we see today. Cole offers a similar velocity floor (low-90s) when compared to the high school version of Verlander, but has the edge when it comes to prep peak velocity as he has been clocked as high as 96-98 MPH at various stages in the past year. So, Cole has a better fastball at this point in his development, plus more consistent breaking stuff and a more advanced overall feel for pitching. If, and it is admittedly a pretty sizable if, Cole’s 6-5, 190 pound frame fills out like Verlander’s similarly projectable high school frame did, then you could eventually be talking about two very similar pitching prospects come draft time. With a little more muscle packed on, Cole’s fastball has the potential to be one of the signature pitches in all of baseball much in the same way Verlander’s heater has emerged as a special offering.
If you don’t like the Verlander comp, or the more popular Wheeler/Porcello industry comps, maybe you like the totally coincidental comparison to a trio of Yankee stars, future, present, and past – Phil Hughes, AJ Burnett, and a bigger and harder throwing version of Mike Mussina. When the upside is Burnett (3 WAR floor), Mussina (future HOFer), and Verlander (2.80 FIP in 2009), and the most similar prospects in reason memory are Rick Porcello ($3.5 million bonus) and Phil Hughes (BA’s fourth best prospect in baseball in 2007), only signability concerns or injury will keep you out of the first ten picks.