There are any number of ways in the 21st century for a pitcher-in-progress like 20-year-old A.J. Cole to perform self-analysis: watch high-quality video, peek at his peripherals on the web, or interrupt a coaches-only meeting with a text message.
Cole, however, prefers the old-fashioned: peppering the batters on his own club with questions. Here is a sample of the questions Class A Advanced Stockton swingers have had to answer since Cole arrived:
The curveball, how early do you see it out of my hand?
How early do you see the break?
Can you see the changeup out of my hand?
Does it fool you at all?
How is my fastball action?
Is it cutting a little?
Does it get on you quickly?
"Little things like that," Cole, the A's No. 5 prospect, deadpanned.
The responses are still in testing. Cole (0-2) yielded nine runs on 10 hits over his first two outings -- before striking out seven over six solid innings in his third on April 19 -- for Oakland's Cal League affiliate.
The quality of his offerings, however, is surely what led to the Nationals to select him in the fourth round of the 2010 Draft. The Athletics too saw enough in him to demand his inclusion in the five-player trade that cost them Major League starter Gio Gonzalez this past offseason. His 108 strikeouts in 89 innings in the South Atlantic League last season also served as confirmation.
But how does the pitcher who leans on others for a look at himself ... look at himself?
"The first guy I tried mimicking was John Smoltz," Cole said. "His mechanics, he was a hard-thrower, but he was smooth about it, and that's how I see myself: smooth."
What would he ask Smoltz, also a right-hander and the Braves' 1996 Cy Young Award winner, in their first meeting? Another sampling of Cole's queries:
How did you make your pitches better?
How did you start commanding your pitches better?
What did you do on days after starts?
To catch up with reporter Cole, MiLB.com asked him to describe and grade each of the four pitches he employs. (His grade is based on a scout's traditional 20-80 scale, 50 being the Major League average.) Here is Cole, in his own words.
Pitch one: Four-seam fastball
: I started throwing it last year. Something I wanted to add.
Purpose: It has a slight cut. My natural arm slot makes it cut; I don't do it on purpose.
Grip: As a righty, the horseshoe is open on the outside. How do I explain this: If I hold the ball up, it's a backward "C." I put my fingers on it like that.
Grade: I would say it's a 70.
Pitch two: Two-seam fastball
: That was the first pitch I threw. I haven't been throwing it lately -- I'm starting to get back to it -- because I have been working on the four-seam for a whole year. I threw the two-seam in Spring Training but didn't use it in my first start
. I just have to get the feeling back.
Purpose: It tails away from lefties and into righties.
Speed: It used to be up there with the four-seam, but now it's between 90-92.
Pitch three: Knuckle-curveball
: I learned this pitch when I was 14. My dad actually taught me. I think he got together with one of my coaches -- they were talking about it -- and they were messin' around and they showed me. It took about a year to start developing good, but after that it worked very well.
Purpose: A lot of out-pitches, but I can use it whenever. I trust it and will throw it in any count.
Grip: Just like a two-seam, but I roll it back so the horseshoe is open and forward, so my knuckle is on the seam at the bottom, the "U." I don't flip my wrist at all; I just throw it like a fastball.
Speed: Anywhere from 78 to 82.
Grade: 60, 65 maybe.
Pitch four: Changeup
: I've always thrown one, but I've only developed it good since last year. My pitching coach at Hagerstown, Chris Michalak
, showed me the grip and told me how to be fluid with it and throw it better. It was a little different from the changeup I used to throw at Oviedo High School [in Florida].
Purpose: Any count. When I throw a changeup for an off-speed pitch, I can't change my mechanics to make it break or move, to make it look like, 'Oh, this guy's throwing a changeup because he's slowed his whole body down.'
Grip: It's like a two-seam, but your pointer and ring finger are on the outside of the two seams, and your middle finger is on the inside. The ball is on your fingertips. Every changeup that I've tried doing, I would always get acclimated to the grip, so I would start throwing it hard. This grip is one of those grips where I just can't throw it hard, so it works for me.
Grade: 50 to 55 because it works really well for me.