For the past couple seasons, something has just seemed off about A.J. Cole's numbers.
A top prospect with the raw stuff to wow scouts, ability to record strikeouts at better than a batter-an-inning rate and a strikeout-to-walk ratio that's always exceeded 4-to-1, the one thing that didn't seem to fall in line for Cole was a stubbornly inflated ERA.
He had a 7.82 ERA with Class A Advanced Stockton in the first half of last season and finished the year with a 3.70 overall mark. This year, back at the Class A Advanced level with Potomac, he notched a 4.25 ERA through 18 starts.
Not bad numbers, but still higher than his peripherals and talent would seem to suggest.
His introduction to Double-A, at least, seems to be leveling things out.
In his third Eastern League start Tuesday, the No. 3 Nationals prospect allowed one run on four hits without issuing a walk, striking out 10 Reading batters over seven frames as Harrisburg dropped a 4-3 decision in 12 innings.
"I didn't really look at that 'til after the game," Cole said of the 10 punchouts. "Then I noticed I actually had that, but I just went out there and tried locating. Basically, the numbers showed afterward. It's kind of nice to have the strikeouts, takes other things out of play -- like errors or anything like that."
The 21-year-old has stormed through his first three Double-A outings, allowing just two earned runs on 11 hits total with four walks in 20 frames. He's struck out 22 and owns a 2-0 record with a 0.90 ERA.
"[It's not surprising] in my eyes really. I felt like I've been able to come up here and throw for a while and I just wanted to get the chance. I basically just started pitching like I knew how I could," he said.
Last season, Cole struggled in his eight starts with Stockton in the A's system, despite a 31/10 K/BB rate in 38 innings. This year with Potomac, he had struck out 102 and walked just 23 in 97 1/3 frames despite an ERA above 4.00.
"Going through [Class A Advanced] again, I was there last year, got sent down to [Class A] with the A's, and I just had to bounce back, not be let down about being sent down and then starting at [Class A Advanced] this year," he said. "Basically getting the feel for everything, learning different things and showing that I'm able to play here, pitch here and be successful. I just want that to keep going on."
He admitted it was a little validating to get the promotion to the Eastern League after he'd worked through various issues in the California and Carolina Leagues.
"I was really excited actually. My start was on the same day it was going to [originally] be, so I was excited to get up here and pitch right away," he said. "I got out there and everything felt great, just trying to continue everything for now."
Jerad Head led Harrisburg with a pair of RBIs, while Kelly Dugan homered for Reading and Albert Cartwright lifted a sacrifice fly in the 12th to give the Fightin Phils the win.
Jonathan Raymond is a contributor to MiLB.com.