Just before the trade deadline this past summer, the Dodgers and Athletics struck a blockbuster deal that sent ace Rich Hill and capable right fielder Josh Reddick to the Dodgers and pitching prospects Grant Holmes, Frankie Montas, and Jharel Cotton to the A’s. The oft-overlooked Cotton was largely considered the third-best prospect the A’s received; after all, how good could a pitcher who put up a 4.90 ERA in 97.1 frames of Triple-A ball be?
Well, I’ll answer that question for you; pretty damn good. As I often write, ERA isn’t a tell-all statistic, and Cotton had some pretty good indicators that suggested he was more than just a run-of-the-mill pitcher in those 97.1 frames. Although the 1.57 homers per nine were troubling, it is encouraging that in years prior in the minors, he only allowed a rate higher than 1 homer per nine at one level. Also, that rate normalized after the trade; in 38.1 frames for the A’s Triple-A affiliate, he allowed 0.70 homers per nine, sporting a 2.82 ERA. In the majors, the rate wasn’t great, but it was still palatable at 1.23 homers per nine.
What I like most about Cotton, though, is his command and his swing-and-miss stuff. At every stop in the minors in which he threw at least 20 innings, he never walked more than 3.02 per nine. Even more exciting, in those 97.1 innings for the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate, he only allowed 2.96 walks per nine and struck out 11 per nine. That’s right. I said 11. So, he probably suffered from some bad luck there; his strand rate was just barely over 60% and his home run to fly-ball ratio was probably exorbitant. In his short stint in the majors, he only struck out 7.o6 per nine, but with only a 1.23 BB/9 rate and a 12.5% swinging strike rate, which would have been a top ten rate had he qualified.
How did he amass such a high swinging strike rate? Is it sustainable? Let’s take a look at his repertoire.
In order of usage, he throws a four-seamer (34%), a changeup (28.3%), a cutter/slider (16.4%), a two-seamer (13.5%), and a curve (7.8%). His four-seamer averages a solid 92.3, right around the average for a right-handed starter. What really makes this pitch special, though, is its rise. It would have ranked within the top 15, had he qualified. This helped Cotton to a crazy 24.4% popup rate, which was better than every single pitcher who threw 30 or more innings, except for Tyler Clippard. This would explain the miniscule BABIP that Cotton allowed (.198). While I don’t think that figure is sustainable, the rise on the fastball looks good for suppressing BABIP going forward. Let’s check the Baseball Prospectus PitchFX leaderboards for the fastball, too. Of the 228 starters who threw at least 100 four-seamers last year, Cotton’s ranked 113th in average velocity, 42nd in rise, and most impressive, second in terms of popups per balls in play.
Onto the changeup. This one’s a beauty.
A 40% O-Swing rate, and he only throws it in the zone 35.5% of the time! A 17.7% swinging strike rate. A 54.8% swing rate, almost as high as his fastball (55.7%). Also, it would have had top-15 drop, had he qualified. A 4.4 pVAL in only 125 pitches. If we look at the PitchFX leaderboards on Baseball Prospectus instead of FanGraphs, the prognosis is similarly positive: of the 153 starters who threw at least 100 changeups last year, Cotton’s had the 55th highest swing rate, the 48th best whiffs per swing, the 38th best drop, the 21st highest fouls per swing, and best of all, the second highest popups per balls in play rate.
A high O-Swing rate (37.9%) and a low Z-Swing rate (62.8%) point to signs of success for this pitch and possible sustenance of its exorbitant swinging strike rate (22.2%). Here are the relevant stats from Baseball Prospectus as well: of the 89 starters who threw at least 50 cutters last year, Cotton’s had the 28th highest average velocity, the 27th highest swing rate, the third best whiffs per swing, the second best GB/FB ratio, and the best popup per balls in play ratio. Although the pitch also has the lowest fouls per swing rate in that group, the high whiff rate and excellent contact management negate any ill effects from that.
Cotton also throws a curve:
He only threw it 34 times in the majors last year, but it looks like it has good movement, and it generated a 17.7% swinging strike rate. It has above average drop and horizontal movement.
Lastly, Cotton throws a two-seamer, his most ineffective pitch, but it is good to know that he has another fastball he can turn to when he’s in need of a ground ball.
With a full starter’s repertoire, excellent contact quality management, and a robust swinging strike rate that has good foundations, look for Cotton to do big things this season in his first full year in the majors.
Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Video from Pitcherlist. Picture courtesy of USA Today Sports Images, via cbssports.com.
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