There are a few notable names among the Minor League leaders in strikeouts.
There's Ben Lively (131 strikeouts), who dominated the hitters' circuit that is the California League and earned a promotion to his hometown team in Pensacola. There's Aaron Blair (125), who has moved up to his third level in Double-A Mobile during his first season since the D-backs drafted him in the first round last year. Tsuyoshi Wada (120) has used his big strikeout numbers to earn a big league start in his first year with the Cubs. Jose Berrios (118) and Henry Owens (117) were both top-100 prospects who could surge up the MLB.com rankings when they're next updated.
Then, there is Taylor Cole, who is notable for two things. First, he never averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his previous three seasons in Blue Jays farm system. Second, he, nonetheless, now leads the Minors with 134 strikeouts in just 108 2/3 innings.
"I've always said, to family and friends, you have to find something that's going to separate you," Cole said. "Two years ago in Vancouver, I had a [0.81 ERA] and that got me noticed a little bit. Last year was more of a learning year, and even though it wasn't a bad year really, there was nothing to really separate me from the other guys then. Now, it's nice to have the strikeouts be that separator."
The Class A Advanced Dunedin right-hander set a career high with 12 strikeouts and allowed only two hits and one run in 6 2/3 innings Monday to lead Class A Advanced Dunedin to a 3-0 win at home over Bradenton.
The 12 punchouts bested a previous single-game best of 10, set May 23 in another 6 2/3-inning start against Fort Myers.
Cole retired the first eight Marauders he faced, three via the strikeout, before Raul Fortunato broke up the string with a ground-rule double in the third inning. As good as that run was, the former BYU hurler admitted everything wasn't all there early on.
"The first couple innings, I didn't really have my best stuff -- my fastball command wasn't quite there," he said. "I had to have my catcher Santiago Nessy help me out a little, and we talked mechanics with [pitching coach] Darold Knowles in the dugout too. ... I usually get stronger as the game goes on, but today, I had to keep reminding myself to stay back a little. I was getting a little too ahead of myself, so if I stayed back, good things would come of it. By the third inning, I felt pretty settled in."
Cole didn't allow another hit until the sixth and was pulled one frame later after his only walk of the outing pushed him to 95 pitches. Of his 12 strikeouts, eight came in the fourth inning or later.
Just as interestingly, the 6-foot-1 hurler relied heavily on sliders and changeups in the lower half to reach his dozen K's. Ten of the punchouts came by Marauders swinging at the third strike, and five of those required Nessy to throw over to first to record the out after the ball bounced in the dirt following the swing-and-miss.
"I feel like I've got three quality pitches in my fastball, slider and changeup," said Cole, whose heater sat around 91 and topped out at 94 on Monday. "But between the two offspeed [pitches], I think I used them 50-50 to get strikeouts today. I mixed both well with my fastball. It's just about keeping them on the same plane with the same arm speed, and that makes it difficult for hitters to pick up what's coming out of your hand."
Cole admits he's always had confidence in his secondary offerings and perhaps relied on them too much in the past. Though that strategy resulted in some OK numbers in 2013 -- a 3.94 ERA in 27 starts between Dunedin and Class A Lansing -- he needed to stand out a little more if he wanted to climb the Blue Jays ladder. Getting more strikeouts was a good place to start, after he hadn't averaged more than 7.7 K/9 in a season entering 2014.
Instead of relying on the slider and changeup to get outs, he started using the fastball again as a primary pitch to attack hitters early in counts, choosing to turn to the offspeed stuff more as complementary offerings than featured pitches. Ever since, the strikeouts have piled up. Following Monday's gem, his season K/9 is up to 11.1 to go with a 2.90 ERA and 1.13 WHIP.
With the strikeouts now separating him not only from his fellow Toronto pitching prospects but also his fellow Minor League hurlers, the next thing will be maintaining this production at the upper levels. Though unlikely, Cole isn't exactly one to rule it out, because even when it seemed like he was a non-candidate to lead the Minors in strikeouts, he believed it was at least possible.
"Something I've always believed -- and I got this from my dad -- is that you have to have confidence in anything you do," Cole said. "And the thing I've learned here in pro ball is that there are absolutely going to be ups and downs. All I've tried to do this year is focus on making one quality pitch at a time and being consistent in that. I don't get as high with the ups and I don't get as low with the downs anymore.
"It's a process. I'm still learning. But my slider is better this year. It's another out pitch rather than just my changeup, and all three of my pitches are solid now. That comes from the confidence I've always had."