BALTIMORE, MD: Aaron Cook #35 of the Boston Red Sox throws a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles during a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
The thing that is great about pitch-to-contact pitchers: when their pitch-to-contact stuff is on, and it's low in the zone, it's difficult for the opposition to put solid contact on anything. Check out the first five-plus innings of Aaron Cook's start against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday for an example, as he no-hit a quality offensive team through those frames, and did so using just 53 pitches to get to the sixth. This isn't an isolated incident, either: when Cook is on with his sinker, he is on, as the Mariners (complete-game shutout, 81 pitches), and the White Sox (7 5 1 0 0 0, 97 pitches) could tell you.
The thing that's not so great about pitch-to-contact pitchers: when the pitch they lean on heavily to induce contact starts to climb in the zone, and no longer produces the weak contact necessary for it to thrive. When they turn to the strikeout stuff, and end up just digging a deeper hole. Or, in Cook's case, when he can't turn to the strikeout stuff, because he's become more reliant on his sinker than most knucklers get to be on the pitch that gives them that nicnkname.
The sixth inning from that same Wednesday start against the O's fits the bill, as Cook very quickly began to look tired, elevating his sinker in the zone, just enough so that all of those soft grounders turned into hard liners. Cook went from a no-hitter -- one in which his pitch count was in line to complete the thing -- to three hits, five runs, three walks, and one strikeout in a hurry. Sure, just two of those runs were earned, but the error was Cook's, and these sorts of things happen when every ball is put in play, too.
This isn't the lone game in which Cook was hit hard, or those grounders kept finding holes. He gave up seven runs (six earned) to the Orioles in his first start, and while that was in part due to a knee laceration suffered during the game, it effectively raised his sinker in the zone, giving us a taste of the bad side of Cook from the get-go. Before giving up just one run in seven innings to the Rangers in his previous outing, Cook had rattled off three-straight starts where at least five runs were scored off of him, and he failed to make it to the fifth inning in two of them.
There doesn't seem to be much middle ground with Cook, even within starts. This isn't a shock, as, in 57 innings and 10 starts, Cook has handed out 10 free passes (1.6 per nine: excellent), struck out seven of the seven of the 237 batters he's faced, and allowed eight homers, a fact that kind of goes against the whole sinker principle.
Those strikeouts -- or the lack of them, really -- deserve their own paragraph of commentary. Minimum 50 innings in a season, Aaron Cook has the lowest strikeout rate of the DH era (1973-present):
It's actually shocking how not terrible some of these seasons were, given we're not talking about the 1910s here. Cook's 96 ERA+, if it holds, would be the fourth-best since 1973 for a pitcher with fewer than two strikeouts per nine innings. And really, if he keeps up his Jekyll and Hyde act, there's no reason he can't: he just has to balance the bad with good, and vice versa.
Why stop at 1973, though? Let's see how he stacks up in a post-World War II world:
Aaron Cook sure looks odd in the top five of that list, given he wasn't even born until just before Jim Kaat had his similar campaign. George O'Donnell, the leader on this list? The 1954 campaign was his only major-league season, as he spent the rest of a 13-year career in the minors, where his career strikeout rate was 1.3 per nine, half as high as his walk rate.
Now, to scale things back as far as Baseball Reference will allow. To 1901 we go:
Like me, I'm sure you were hoping for another top 10 appearance. Cook is very close, but he's going to have to work on striking out even fewer hitters if he wants to be worse at it than Chet Falk. Cook would need to throw 18 innings without a strikeout to move into the top 10. If he strikes out another hitter between now and 75 innings, he'll need 85 frames to pull the trick. That's a long shot, even for Cook.
Were the Red Sox holding on to a playoff spot, or if they still had Will Middlebrooks, or a David Ortiz not in the midst of a Trojan War reenactment, then you would hear more shouting about removing Cook from the rotation given his oddness and inconsistency. That's not the situation Boston is in today, though, so Cook's presence becomes useful, given he can spot Felix Doubront, and serve as pitching depth for an organization that isn't likely to bring up much of any when rosters expand in September.
That means we get to see even more of what has essentially been a historical-level baseball freak show. You take what you can get when you're under .500.