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Nationals’ starter A.J. Cole on lessons learned in 2016, relying on slider, preparing for 2017

A.J. Cole made eight starts for the Nationals in 2016, and he talked last weekend about what he learned in his first extended stint in the majors.

Washington Nationals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

While it seems like A.J. Cole has been around forever, he’s still just 24 years old, (25 in January).

He’s been in the Washington Nationals organization for a while now, however, and with the exception of his one season in the Oakland A’s system in 2012, the 2010 4th Round pick has been a fixture on Nationals’ prospect lists since he was drafted.

Cole made eight starts in the majors in 2016, going (1-2) with a 5.17 ERA, a 4.74 FIP, 14 walks (3.29 BB/9) and 39 Ks (9.16 K/9) in 38 13 innings pitched.

He went (8-8) in 22 starts at Triple-A Syracuse, over which he put up a 4.26 ERA, a 3.96 FIP, 35 walks (2.53 BB/9) and 109 Ks (7.87 K/9) in 124 23 innings.

After Cole earned his first major league win in a September 2nd start against the New York Mets, in which he gave up just three hits and one earned run in six innings on the mound in Citi Field, Nats’ skipper Dusty Baker talked about being impressed with what he saw from the right-hander.

“He’s had three good [starts],” Baker said. “He’s throwing strikes, he’s throwing quality strikes and he’s not giving up a lot of runs. Gives us an opportunity to win the game.”

“The better you do, the more confident you become,” Baker explained.

“I haven’t noticed a whole lot of difference, because he’s so quiet that you don’t even notice he’s around. We’re not asking for much, just [more] of the same.”

The true test Baker said, would come when Cole faced opposing teams multiple times and they got a good look at what he brings to the mound.

“The first go-around, if they have control, it’s to his advantage,” he said.

“What I want to see is the second and third time around, if they made adjustments and if he’s going to make adjustments.”

Cole told reporters last weekend at Nationals Winterfest that this lesson, how to pitch to teams multiple times, was the big one he learned during his time in the majors last season.

“It’s easy to go out there and throw one time through, I mean, I wouldn’t say easy, but if a guy is only going to see you once you can give them everything,” Cole said.

“But as you throw two times through the lineup it gets harder and the next time you face them, they know, they have a scouting report and they have everything on you, so now you’re not anything new to them. So I learned a lot there, so this year I’ll be able to go after it a lot better.”

Cole had success with his slider in a small sample size in the majors, holding opposing hitters to a .195 AVG with the pitch (177 pitches), which he threw more than his two-seamer (.364 AVG, 172 pitches), behind only his four-seamer (.217 AVG, 216 pitches).

He focused on the slider, he said, because it was working for him late in the season.

“It was one of the pitches that was working better for me, so I kind of went towards it a little more,” Cole explained.

“The other pitches I was trying to get back. The changeup started coming for me more towards the last couple games I threw, but that’s still a big thing I need to get effective. I’ve had it for a couple years and I kind of lost a little bit in the beginning of the year and started getting it back. That’s a big pitch for me.”

Cole said Nationals’ Pitching Coach, Mike Maddux, also helped him with the slider.

“He helped a lot with location for my slider and where to get extension,” Cole said.

“He helped get my changeup back a lot, kind of played around with a couple grips and he got the feeling for it back, so he helps a lot.”

His experience at the end of the season, Cole said, helped give him confidence going into the 2017 campaign, though what role he’ll fill is unclear right now.

“It makes me feel a lot better about myself for the fact that I started figuring stuff out towards the end of the year,” he said.

“I struggled in the beginning of the year, a little bit, and as the season went on I got stronger, so I have a baseline of when I need to work out before I get into the season and everything like that, so I have a strong mindset.”

Cole is not letting himself be influenced by the fact that the trade that sent major league-ready arms Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to the Chicago White Sox has moved him up on the depth chart among starters in the organization.

“I try to not pay attention to a lot of the trades,” Cole said. “I mean I heard about it and everything, but I try to stay out of it.

“I really just go about my business the same way, still working hard. Just because somebody leaves doesn’t mean you have a for-sure spot or a better chance.

“You still have to work hard and prove yourself and make that spot.”

Will he end up in the bullpen, in a long-relief role maybe? Will Cole start in Triple-A and wait for an opportunity. All of that will be sorted out next Spring and next season. For now, he said, he’ll just do his work and get himself ready.