The California League has proven dangerous to many a pitcher. It was downright deadly for A.J. Cole.
Cole went 0-7 with a 7.82 ERA and 1.84 WHIP in eight starts for Class A Advanced Stockton early this season. The A's decided they couldn't stand to see their No. 4 prospect struggle any longer and assigned him to Class A Burlington on May 23.
"At first, I felt pretty down about it," Cole said. "But then I told myself, 'All right, they're not doing it to punish you; they just want you to get your stuff right and figure a few things out.' So I got down here on a positive note."
The move appears to be working wonders.
Cole gave up three hits and struck out nine over six innings Saturday night to help the Bees blank Kane County, 5-0. The half-dozen frames and nine punchouts both equaled career highs for the 20-year-old right-hander.
He has allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven of eight starts since joining Burlington and is 4-0 record with a 2.58 ERA during that stretch.
Against the Cougars, Cole allowed a single in each of the first three innings but retired all nine batters he faced -- four on strikeouts -- in the fourth, fifth and sixth.
As high as his strikeout rate was, his biggest stat line may have been the complete lack of fly balls. Along with the nine punchouts, Cole recorded five groundouts, three popup, one line out and no fly-ball outs. Two of the three singles were the only balls to reach the outfield while he was on the mound, while the third was of the infield variety.
Cole noted that his groundout-to-flyout ratio is something he's been focusing on this season.
"I'm starting to change from a fly-ball pitcher to a mix of both fly-ball and ground-ball type of guy," he said. "I'm just trying to use my pitch location and pitch selection to get more ground balls than before. It helps out in the California League, where you can get hurt on a lot of fly balls. It makes it a lot easier for your team to get to ground balls and easier on you, too, if they're getting the outs."
That alone, however, does not explain the improved numbers following the Florida native's move to the Midwest League. Besides the decrease in quality of competition and the shift away from the hitters' havens in the Cal League, Cole said a change in his delivery has helped.
"Basically, I lost something in my rhythm, but I just got it back," said MLB.com's No. 75 overall prospect. "It's hard to explain. It deals mostly with the way my hands move through the zone. It's really helped in the way I'm able to throw all my pitches where I want them."
Traded in the offseason to the Oakland organization as part of the deal that sent Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals, Cole was 4-7 with a 4.04 ERA with 108 strikeouts over 89 innings for Class A Hagerstown last year. But for all the success he's enjoying in his second go-round at the Class A level, he does not want anyone to doubt his desire to return to California as soon as possible.
"Hopefully, I do get back up there at some point," he said. "I feel like I should be able to pitch up there. ... I like the challenge of it."
Wade Kirkland doubled three times and drove in two runs for the Bees.