CHICAGO -- The Pirates are getting to deal with many of the nice if unfamiliar problems associated with heading to the postseason. Like, who’s going to be on the roster? Or, who’s going to start which game? And even after manager Clint Hurdle tabbed veteran lefty Francisco Liriano to start the wild-card game against the Reds to neutralize lefties Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo, with veteran righty A.J. Burnett on deck to start Game 1 of the NLDS if they advance, you might be asking, when will rookie Gerrit Cole’s turn come?
This isn’t merely about the cult of the new, the inevitable fascination that any top prospect generates with a big first season. In the past month, Cole has been hands-down the Pirates’ most effective starter, winning four of five turns, posting a rotation-best 1.69 ERA while allowing just 34 baserunners in 32 innings, whiffing 39 without allowing a homer. His ERA since the All-Star break (2.85) is also the rotation’s best. In the same time frame that 2013 All-Star Jeff Locke has pitched his way out of the postseason rotation, Cole stepped up and pitched his way into it.
Could it be standard-issue animus against relying on a rookie in the postseason? Hardly. Reflecting on his experience winning a pennant with the Rockies in 2007, Hurdle already knows he won’t have a problem counting on Cole when the time comes.
“I’m fortunate,” Hurdle said, “in the fact that in Colorado I actually had two rookies in the rotation in the second half of the season -- Franklin Morales and Ubaldo Jimenez -- and a rookie closer, Manny Corpas. That’s not the way you draw it up, but that’s the way we played it out there.”
It’s important to remember that Cole is barely more than two years removed from pitching for UCLA. While the Pirates didn’t opt for shutting Cole down after reaching some ideal workload a la Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals last season, it would be easy to forget how much he’s learning and adapting in just his second season as a pro.
“Cole has gained experience throughout the season,” Hurdle said. “It’s probably his finest hour right now, in terms of command, efficiency and endurance. We’ve worked him into a position where he doesn’t need to be taken out because of hard pitch count, season-long pitch count or inning count.”
What’s been especially remarkable about Cole since his call-up in June has been the way in which he’s been adapting to the league before the league had a chance to catch up with him. Before the season, scouting reports buzzed about his sharp slider as his key breaking pitch, and how effectively he used it to complement his high-90s heat. But that isn’t the guy the Pirates have been winning with down the stretch. The guy Pirates fans have quickly gotten familiar with throws a big-breaking curve that -- according to Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboards -- generates a 43 percent whiff rate on swings, better than everybody in baseball not named Yu Darvish, Ivan Nova or Roy Halladay.
How did that happen, in an age when every top prospect is under the microscope for years? When we’re supposed to know everything about everybody from the moment they arrive? In part, Cole thanks another member of that same curveball whiff leaderboard, rotation mate Burnett.
“I started playing with it last year towards the end of the year,” Cole said. “I think my second day here, this guy [gesturing to Burnett] got ahold of me and started talking to me about it. I use a similar grip as A.J., but I don’t quite have as big hands as he does, so I can’t really get around it as much as he can, but that’s what I pretty much try to do, is copy him.”
Hurdle couldn’t be more pleased. “He had a curveball that might have been his fourth-best pitch coming in,” Hurdle said, “and it’s turned out to be his second pitch right now; he’s using that more than the slider. The slider, the fastball and the changeup were grouped up in a velocity package which was within 10-11 miles; that’s something hitters can hunt. Now, when he throws that slow breaking ball 15-16 miles slower [than his fastball], it quickens his fastball up.”
Something else Cole has figured out in-season since getting called up is how to bust a lefty with a breaking pitch low and inside -- something he’s picking up start by start, learning from his veteran teammates and doing more and more down the stretch.
“Part of it is he was watching other guys having success doing it,” Hurdle said. “Charlie [Morton] can throw the backdoor breaking ball, A.J. throws the backdoor breaking ball, so Gerrit knows it’s in play, knows it works, and he’ll see some guys do it in the same series right in front of him.”
Reflecting on what he’s learned and how it has changed his pitching within his first three months in the majors, Cole said, “A lot of left-handers have trouble with that ball down and in. It isn’t necessarily that I’m really trying to locate it down and in, it’s just that with the way it plays it’s much sharper when it gets to that side of the plate. I’m not 13 years into this thing where I can move that curveball around like A.J. can, so I just try to stay aggressive with it and try to finish it below the zone, whether it’s over the plate or inside. As long you speed 'em enough with the fastball, as long as you stick to your cheese and locate your fastball, you can put yourself into a position where you can throw your breaking ball and not worry about where it goes.”
Something else that Cole has had to adapt to is the Pirates’ readiness to shift their fielders around from batter to batter, but it’s something else he’s adjusted to already.
“I think in big situations, there’s always your generic theories to minimize things with guys in scoring position,” Cole said, “but for the most part, unless it’s in a key situation, I just try to pitch my game. Sometimes with a guy like [lefty Anthony Rizzo], maybe with runners in scoring position, it’s important to not allow him to just shoot one down the left-field line, it’s important to pitch to your defense. Maybe you give up a hard hit, but you know what, that’s why Neil [Walker] or Josh [Harrison] is playing in right field -- that’s what it’s for. I try not to pitch to it, but in certain situations you have to acknowledge where they’re at.”
So, he’s absorbing info from his veteran teammates before he’s gotten 20 starts into his big league career, his second-best pitch is something he picked up on the fly and he’s adapting to a new arsenal in-season that helps him neutralize left-handed hitters. Your typical rookie experience, right? Add that to one of the fastest four-seam fastballs in the league -- sitting just shy of 97 mph -- on top of a good changeup and the still-there slider, and you’ve got a package that nobody should look forward to facing, even as Cole gets used to putting it all to work in different situations.
Because that’s part of what’s going on: This is all new to Cole. Take his thought after having to work his way through a 34-pitch sixth-inning jam against the Cubs on a cold Wednesday night. Cole relished the lesson that one game provided -- for its postseason applications.
“It was definitely a challenge with the long inning and the cold weather, so I had to do some different things there. It was great to be able to learn from that, and take that into some meaningful games,” Cole said.
OK, so somebody’s certainly thinking ahead. So where does Cole fit into the postseason rotation picture? Before he’d made the decision to slot Liriano and Burnett up front in the postseason, Hurdle made no apologies for his “nice problem to have."
“All four of these guys are on as consistent rolls as they’ve ever been their last three starts,” Hurdle said. “Morton in particular, Cole too, but Liriano’s been so focused and determined, and A.J.’s been coming off some of his finest outings of the season. I just want to make sure that we don’t overcook this.”
Fair enough, but given how quickly Cole is transmogrifying into a dominant starter before our eyes, it may not be much longer before the simplest recipe for success will have Cole as its lead ingredient.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.