The Forgotten One: This Astros prospect in George Springer's shadow is quietly making a greater impact
George Springer arrived with a clever, promotional hashtag and Jon Singleton doesn't appear to be long for Oklahoma City given his impressive OPS. Mike Foltynewicz generated excitement during spring training while Mark Appel inspired concern after four lackluster appearances at High A Lancaster.
With the Houston Astros' future tied to the development of their ballyhooed prospects, there are as many eyes focused on the farm as there are on Minute Maid Park. And with hopes for a brighter future intrinsically linked to those who were recently recalled or are knocking on the door of promotion, it's easy to forget that right-hander Jarred Cosart arrived last July 12 and is just 18 starts into a big league career Astros brass believe is destined for exceptionality.
Considering the confluence of his promise and inexperience, Cosart should remain under careful observation. He is mere days shy of his 24th birthday and by the time May 25th arrives he will have made as many starts this season as he did in 2013 when he suppressed runs at a shocking and unsustainable rate.
His most apparent signs of development as a pitcher? Cosart has shaved nearly four points off his walk rate while adding three points on his strikeout rate.
Central to any evaluation of Cosart is an understanding that he has only just begun. He will make his ninth start of this season Saturday against the Chicago White Sox riding a stretch of four outings that provide a glimmer of hope. Following an offseason where the phrase "mean regression" hung over his head like a guillotine, Cosart continues to prove that his competitive nature and eagerness for instruction are attributes on his journey to fulfill his vast potential.
"First of all, understand we’re dealing with a very talented individual, so that makes my job a lot easier," Astros pitching coach Brent Strom says. "We have a lot of weapons that we can go to with this guy, not just the power arm. He has a plus curveball, he has a developing change-up (and) he’s working on some ball movement, things that we’ve talked about.
"Obviously we’re talking about a very youthful pitcher trying to find his way in the big leagues, but I’m seeing signs like being able to throw 2-1 curveballs for strikes with the game on the line, something that he hadn’t probably done in the past."
That past included Cosart improving his strikeout rate with each stop in the Astros' system, from 14.0 to 17.8 percent with Double A Corpus Christi in 2011-12 to 20.3 to 23.2 percent with Triple A Oklahoma City from 2012-13. It included a rousing debut following his promotion midway through last season, with Cosart producing a 1.95 ERA over 10 starts despite peripherals that suggested his run suppression was largely an act of smoke and mirrors.
Cosart posted a higher walk rate (14.2 percent) than strikeout rate (13.4 percent) during his debut. Those numbers combined with his BABIP (.246) implied that Cosart was more lucky than good, with his 4.35 FIP offering greater perspective on his first foray around the majors against big league hitters.
This season Cosart has a FIP (4.73) more in line with his ERA (4.30) despite the fact that his BABIP (.250) is nearly identical to that of last season. His most apparent signs of development as a pitcher? Cosart has shaved nearly four points off his walk rate while adding three points on his strikeout rate.
"Just being able to attack the zone early has been huge for me, these last four starts especially," Cosart says. "Getting ahead and making the hitters press, that's what the name of the game is. Obviously I had one really bad game where I couldn't get ahead of anybody, and in the big leagues that's what's going to happen to you if you can't.
"You're going to get hit around the yard. But I was able to put that behind me."
That nightmarish outing at Oakland — Strom described it as a "blip" — ended with Cosart allowing almost as many earned runs (seven) as batters faced (eight). He recorded one out, lasted only 39 pitches, and surrendered three hits and four walks, suffering the indignity of his ERA nearly doubling to 7.36.
However, Cosart showed more in his response to the forgettable outing than he did during it. In his four subsequent starts he has allowed just six earned runs on 21 hits and 10 walks over 25 2/3 innings for a 2.10 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .228/.317/.315 as Cosart continues to put greater distance between his walk rate (9.5 percent) and strikeout rate (15.2 percent).
Given his youth, exceptional stuff and minor league numbers, it is understandable that Cosart has a modest fixation with strikeouts. But at this stage, wisdom is a more powerful weapon to wield, and Cosart is learning the nuances of pitching.
"It's all about efficiency. You want to get through seven or eight (innings) each time instead of five or six," Cosart says. "I've been doing a pretty good job of that and I want to do better with that going forward. That being said, it all goes back to getting quick outs and attacking the zone.
"My change-up is developing and that will help me get some first-pitch swings from lefties and righties. Just learning ways for me to keep that pitch count down (is key). I've never pitched scared but the first time coming up to the big leagues you don't want to get hit around the yard, so you kind of nitpick. I got a lot of 3-2 counts and that led to a lot of walks and some strikeouts. It's a lot of stress when everyone is 3-2 and you don't want to give up that base.
"It's just working on little things like that and learning."
Major League Training
That learning process entails utilizing the breaking ball and off-speed pitch with greater frequency and unflinching confidence. Cosart ranks third in baseball with an average velocity of 94.3 miles per hour on his cutter, trailing only Angles right-hander Garrett Richards (95.6) and Royals rookie sensation Yordano Ventura (94.6). The potency of his fastball serves as a crutch, and if hitters can extend at-bats by spoiling fastballs deep in the count, Cosart will ultimately fail in his mission to pitch deeper into his starts and spare an Astros bullpen gutted by injury and thus rendered largely ineffective.
During his debut month last season, Cosart threw his cutter 74.84 percent of the time. That usage rate dropped to 73.01 percent in April and stands at 70.71 percent this month. Consequently, the usage rate of his curveball has increased from 16.77 percent last July to 25.69 percent last month and 26.26 in May. Cosart is still developing faith in his change-up, but an increasing reliance upon his entire arsenal will advance his goals of efficiency and reliability.
"I’ve had some special pitchers in my lifetime working and he’s right up there with them. I’ve had my share of guys that are pretty good and he’s right up there with them."
"I think the change-up is going to be a key to get earlier outs," Strom says. "More confidence using the change-up will induce more early-contact outs.
"When he controls his emotions, understands what it’s all about, how to follow a plan and use the weapons that he does have then he’s going to be special. I’ve had some special pitchers in my lifetime working and he’s right up there with them. I’ve had my share of guys that are pretty good and he’s right up there with them."
For Strom, that's heady company including the likes of Ramon Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Billy Wagner, Darryl Kile and the talented collection of young arms serving as the foundation for the St. Louis Cardinals' pitching staff. Steering Cosart toward a path of improved efficiency not only serves the Astros well on a game-by-game basis, it underscores an organizational effort to keep its pitchers healthy. Given the rash of Tommy John surgeries this season and the fact that Strom was the first pitcher not named Tommy John to undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, pitch counts are a pressing concern.
Cosart threw a season-high 113 pitches in the start preceding his flameout in Oakland. He has averaged 102 pitches over the four starts since, working seven full innings once while pitching into the seventh another time and completing six frames twice. In addition to working in concert with Strom on enhancing his repertoire and adhering to game plans on how to attack opposing hitters, Cosart has used veteran Scott Feldman as a resource of information.
Cosart and Feldman are separated by one locker in the Astros clubhouse with Feldman, who counted Eddie Guardado and Darren Oliver among influential veterans during his formative years, enthusiastically embracing the role as wise sage in the tutelage of Cosart throughout his first full season.
"I think just trusting his stuff and knowing that his stuff is good enough (has been a revelation)," says Feldman, who signed as a free agent during the offseason. "He doesn't have to try to trick guys and walk a bunch of guys because he's afraid to pitch to contact. I think he's realizing that with his stuff that if he does pitch to contact it's not going to be hard hit, it's going to be weak contact.
"If you get that weak contact early in counts you go deeper into games.
"The thing with him is he's not satisfied with where he's at right now. You can tell by talking to him he wants to be one of the best pitchers in baseball. As long as he keeps that attitude and keeps that as his goal I don't see why he couldn't be."
The Astros are banking on Cosart maturing into a top-of-the-rotation talent. Cosart has similar aspirations, which is why he used his demolition in Oakland as motivation to work harder, to utilize every bullpen, every side session and every long toss as an opportunity to sharpen his resolve. When he studies the Clayton Kershaws of the game, he witnesses their ability to pitch four or five innings without their best stuff. He takes note of how they spare their bullpens.
Perhaps someday soon, Cosart might etch his name alongside the other top young pitchers in the game. By then, Astros fans should be acutely aware of his exploits and, maybe, Cosart will be the strikeout pitcher most expect him to become given his power arm, plus stuff, and irrepressible longing to excel.
"Our No. 1 goal is to get outs," Cosart says. "(Former Astros pitching coach) Doug Brocail told me when I first came up strikeout numbers were there in Triple A. He said it's about learning. When I learn about first-pitch strikes and efficiency and sequencing, strikeouts are going to come so that's the least of my worries right now.
"I'm growing and learning something every day, trying to get through seven, eight innings, and I'll watch all the other stuff unfold."