A star pitcher for the Oviedo high Lions, Cole posted a 6-0 record, .93 ERA and 84 strikeouts through 60 innings pitched during his senior season. Considered a top-twenty draft prospect pre-draft, Cole’s strong commitment to the University of Miami, recent slew of nagging injuries and his gaudy asking price all helped pushed his stock out of the first round. He was eventually taken by Washington at 116th overall slot, adding even more weight to the Nationals’ record-breaking draft spending spree. Just a few days prior to Bryce Harpers’ signing, Cole inked a fourth-round record $2 million bonus. Despite signing mid-way through August, Cole managed to make his professional debut in the New York Penn League before season’s end.
Coming out of a central Florida program known for it’s athletics– Oviedo boasts alumni like big leaguer Mark Bellhorn, Olympian Jennifer Barringer, and numerous top NCAA wrestlers– Cole’s talent was polished for a high school pitcher. Spending his amateur career pitching in a state famed for its production of baseball stars has helped Cole make a smooth transition to professional baseball. Even as the youngest player on the Hagerstown Suns’ roster this season, the nineteen-year-old righthander has flashed dominance and top-shelf potential. After a rocky start to his season, Cole one-hit the Delmarva Shorebirds on April 13th (through five innings) and he’s proceeded to dominate the South Atlantic League since. Through his last 64 innings pitched, he’s posted a 2.81 ERA and his 89 strikeouts on the season give him a 10.5 K/9 and a gaudy 4.25 K/BB ratio.
Blessed with a lean and lanky, athletic, 6’4″ frame, Cole has an ideal pitcher’s body with plenty of room for projection. He already runs his fastball up to the mid 90′s, and his curveball is quickly developing into a consistent plus offering. His lightning-quick arm and coordinated mechanics generate premium spin and velocity into the late innings of his starts, and his athleticism affords him solid control.
Cole’s game begins with his already above-average fastball. His four-seamer reaches 94-95 mph and he easily maintains 90-93 mph velocity throughout his starts. Working with long arms and legs and blessed with strong shoulders and a powerful core, his immense coordination allows him to almost effortlessly generate low-to-mid 90s heat with plenty of life. When he’s at his best, he has no trouble throwing the pitch for quality strikes– to either side of the plate and utilizing different eye levels effectively. His delivery helps hide the ball and his easy velocity adds explosiveness to his fastball– generating plenty of strikeouts and awkward contact. His athleticism allows him to repeat his delivery and easily generate power. As a nineteen year old with a long and lean frame, he boasts plenty of projection in his arm and should develop consistent mid 90′s heat with more refinement.
Employing an easy, balanced delivery, Cole’s long arm action gives his heater explosiveness and his long fingers and high 3/4 arm slot adds nice arm-side run. He’s comfortable throwing a two-seamer as well, and will use the pitches sink and boring action to bust righthanders up-and-in. He’ll occasionally mix a split-finger fastball into his repertoire as well, but seems best suited focusing on a fastball-curveball-changeup combo.
Cole’s power curveball gives him a second present plus offering with knockout potential. Since being drafted he’s added more depth to his breaking ball and has developed comfort throwing it for strikes and early in the count. The pitch comes in between 75 and 80 mph and shows nice two-plane movement to go with it’s deep, crisp downward break. More than just a chase-pitch, he’ll sweep it across the plate against righthanders and he’ll back-door it to the outside corner against left-handed batters. With such tightly-wound movement, it resembles a David Robertson-esq K-curve, and like Robertson, he’s does a fine job of throwing the pitch out of the same tunnel as his fastball. With such advanced feel already– and with more coaching and consistency– his curve has the makings of a plus-plus wipe-out offering.
While his lanky 6’4″ frame embodies the terms “long levers” and “long and lean,” Cole has a sturdy trunk and his impressive coordination allow him to repeat his delivery far better than most young, tall, lanky pitchers. He’s a good athlete and his strong core and legs afford him good balance and easy control. He does a nice job of keeping men off base, and he’s generally solid at controlling the count. Though his command of his secondary pitches still needs refinement, he’s adept at spotting his fastball to all quadrants of the zone.
Cole’s flexible, loose body, and his whip-like narrow frame blesses him with free and easy mechanics. Though he can get a bit long in back, he employs a razor-sharp, quick arm action and a clean, high 3/4 release. He takes a medium-long stride, but stays low and uses his trunk to generate torque and consistent, clean 90+ mph velocity. Though his workload has been limited, he’s been an efficient pitcher and his athletic mechanics give him a profile on par with that of the traditional, durable front-end big league starter.
Out of the stretch, Cole does a decent job of holding runners and his poised, calm demeanor allows him to manage the game and avoid big innings. He’s quick to the plate and his delivery keeps base-stealers from getting big jumps.
In his first full season playing professionally, Cole has generally managed to meet his lofty expectations. That said, he isn’t without fault. His age still shows, and despite his impressive mechanics and control, he needs to work on commanding his secondary offerings and throwing quality strikes. His changeup shows above-average potential, but is unrefined and he’s only recently shown comfort using the pitch in higher-leverage situations.
Though he shows good feel for his changeup, Cole is primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher at this point in his career. With premium velocity and advanced control, he simply hasn’t needed more than his two-pitch mix to succeed. Until he pitched professionally, he’d rarely use his changeup in game situations with any leverage; now, he’s making a more concerted effort to mix in an effective circle-change in to his repertoire. He shows good arm speed and he disguises the pitch well, though his command waivers from iffy to decent, and– like most young power arms– he tends to overthrow it. The pitch shows decent movement, though he often has trouble keeping it out of the meat of the plate. With more coaching however, he should be able to develop his change to at least a big league average level.
Just 19 years old, while Cole’s control and advanced arsenal are well beyond most arms in his age group, his command and general feel for pitching will keep him in the minors for at least a year or two. He’ll lose his arm slot, and will open to early, hanging his curve and fastball for right-handed batters to drive. Despite his premium stuff and advanced control, he’s prone to hard contact and needs to do a better job of staying on top of his fastball. He’s already effective at jamming lefthand batters by cutting his fastball on their hands, but is generally inconsistent at inducing weak contact. At higher levels, he’ll benefit a great deal by keeping his pitches in the lower third of the zone and inducing more groundball-outs.
Despite a drop in Cole’s overall numbers recently, he’s generally improved with each of his 2011 starts. Though he’s given up 5 ER in each of his last two starts and has had a rough August in general, he’s managed to maintain a sub-three Fielder-Independent Pitching (2.57). His FIP is over a run below the South Atlantic League average (3.82) he’s posted a 30/6 K/BB over his last four starts without allowing a single home run; In fact, he’s allowed just one home run since July 11th.
With three to four (potentially) above-average offerings, clean mechanics and developing command, AJ Cole boasts number-one starter potential. He’s thrown multiple one and two-hit shutouts this season, and has flashed dominance regularly. While he’s still a teenager, he’s probably no more than two seasons away from competing for a big league rotation spot. His arsenal resembles that of the Cubs’ Matt Garza and the Giants’ Matt Cain and he profiles to be a similar starter once he refines his secondary offerings and fills out. He’ll spend the majority of 2012 pitching for the Harrisburg Senators and could possibly earn a promotion to Syracuse by season’s end.