Back in November, the Toronto Blue Jays signed AJ Cole to a minor league deal, but he just might have a chance to have an impact in their bullpen
The Toronto Blue Jays have revamped their pitching depth with a near fully new rotation and some rather interesting names added to the list of relievers. From Shun Yamaguchi to Anthony Bass to Rafael Dolis (whenever that becomes official) to a whole host of young guys waiting in the wings, the Blue Jays will have some interesting options. However, there is one option that folks seem to overlook and that is A.J. Cole.
Signed on November 25, Cole will head to Spring Training on a minor league deal, hoping to crack the roster. Right now, Fangraphs does not project him to make the team, but they also list Trent Thornton in the bullpen and we know that the club is more likely to keep him stretched out as a starter in Buffalo given how quickly and prolifically the injury bug can strike.
So, there is a real possibility that Cole sees some action at the big league level. The question is whether he is good enough to.
After several minor league seasons of rather nice K/BB numbers, Cole hit a lull where the number took a dip, including a career low mark of 1.63 in 2017 with the Nationals. After going to the Yankees and then Cleveland, he saw that number climb back up to 3.75 last season in 26 big league innings.
The 10+ K/9 that he put up over the last couple of season is rather nice and leads you to wonder if he can be an effective bullpen arm. 30 strike outs in 26 innings projects quite nicely, no?
Cole features a fastball, slider combination and sprinkles in the odd curveball now and then. His fastball averages mid-90’s, which is an interesting contrast to a slider that averages 84.3 mph- slower than his change. While 2019 saw his fastball improve, as evidenced by his jump from -13.6 wFB mark to a -1.7, his secondary stuff actually showed some decline. Of course, we’re looking at a sample of 26 innings, so take it for what it’s worth.
Over the last 2 seasons of big league pitching, Cole saw an average SwStr% of 14%. Though, he also gave up an average of 35% hard contact over the same span. According to Baseball Savant, he gets rather nice spin on his fastball (82nd percentile), but his curve is not so great, in the 30th percentile. Baseball Savant lists Cole’s closest comparison as John Brebbia of the Cardinals who put up 1.3 fWAR in 2019, which sounds nice, for what it’s worth.
Cole could bring himself closer to that 1.3 fWAR if he can maintain his 2019 barrel rate of 5% and cut down on his 20.1 launch angle, which led to 1.38 HR/9. That would cut down on his career xSLG mark of .418. Likewise, his career xwOBAcon mark of .376 leaves a bit to be desired. The following image from Baseball Savant does well to explain the numbers a bit more:
Essentially, on pitches like his slider, which is meant to get batters chasing, they just aren’t. These pitches bring extra value to the pitcher, whereas those down the middle are going to be less valuable…and desirable since the idea of pitching is not to serve up meatballs. Cole seems to have success with those borderline pitches, but anything designed to get batters chasing, hasn’t worked thus far. Unless he’s going to face Kevin Pillar for every at bat, he’ll need to be able to figure this out since a simple bang on a garbage can gives a batter all they need to know. Anything other than a fastball can be ignored.
At the end of the day, Cole is not a perfect pitcher. If he were, he certainly would not have signed on a minor league deal. There are flaws to his game, for sure. That said, he has some tantalizing strike out potential that make him someone to watch this spring. It’s easy to see why no one has been talking about him, but with some adjustments, we just might be.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.