His pick-up was just a byline on each and every baseball site and if not, probably pushed down by the news of Ian Kennedy and Zach Davies not getting their club options lifted.
Who have the Diamondbacks added to their team and can he be a successful member on the 2023 squad?
While the Diamondbacks claiming Cole Sulser might not be a major headline, it could be one of those waiver claims that might actually provide a decent return.
As several writers on this site have already pointed out correctly, the D-Backs cannot build a bullpen out of free agents only and will have to be smart with trades and/or waiver claims. Now is the best time for those waiver claims as clubs will bump players with question marks off their rosters to add Rule 5 eligible prospects. That is certainly the case for the Miami Marlins who already suffer a roster crunch and decided to waive Cole Sulser who, until recently, was actually quite successful.
Once again, I can share a terrific and recent interview with the player of this article that is available on YouTube and conducted by two quite talented kids. Excerpts of the interview can be found in the article, but in case you wish to listen to it entirely, here is it:
South Cal mountain boy.
Cole Sulser grew up in rural South California in the mountains on a cattle ranch, as part of a baseball crazy family, where he played baseball with his father and brother Beau Sulser. He would spend hours, day and night, in an unused barn on the property, where his dad set up a batting cage. Sulser would make the high school team, but instead of opting for a college in California after that, he continued his education at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, for both academical and baseball reasons.
“Usually you follow the older brother, and he liked baseball more than any other sport,” Beau Sulser said. “My mom didn’t play sports. My dad played high school football, and nobody was into baseball, but my dad was very, very involved once we picked a sport and did everything in his power to make sure we got every opportunity to practice at the sport. Once we picked baseball, it was everything. I followed the footsteps of my older brother, and he liked baseball, so I liked baseball.” - Beau Sulser, Cole’s brother, on playing baseball at home in an interview for The Republic in April 2022
In his first year playing for Dartmouth Sulser really has to adapt to the higher level of baseball, but after his freshman year he provides solid performances until he blows his arm out as a junior (on a team with current Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks) and has to undergo TJ surgery. He misses his entire senior year in 2012, but after some administrative work is allowed to return for a second senior year. However, coming back from an injury and being older than most other draft eligible prospects, he is unable to up his draft stock and isn’t picked until the 25th round in the 2013 MLB amateur draft.
“For me there was a definite possibility that I may not get drafted...I was a little bit older, I was coming off that arm injury, so I didn’t know how teams would view that. So when I finally got a call from the Cleveland Indians and they said that they had selected me in the MLB draft...I mean, that was...you know, it was a dream come true for me, for sure, and I was really excited to get the opportunity to go start a pro career.” - Cole Sulser in a 2022 interview published on YouTube
A dream come true.
The right-handed pitcher remembers his minor league years in the Indians’ system as tough, with the usual bus rides and low pays.
“I had to do a lot of things to kind of...make ends meet...so in the off-season I usually had to pick up several jobs. I was a substitute teacher in one off-season...my brother who was a minor leaguer for a while, he ubered, I worked in construction, gave pitching lessons, so honestly, there is a lot of minor leaguers that have to pick up second and third jobs in order to pay for their training and to keep pursuing baseball, because they don’t get paid in the off-season[...]but you’re still expected to continue training in the off-season but you don’t have income[...]that’s how I kinda grinded through until I got a chance at the major league level.” - Cole Sulser in a 2022 interview published on YouTube
His start in his draft year in A- is good, but in 2014 he struggles a bit more as a full-time starter. In 2015 he is supposed to start the year in AA, but he needs to undergo his second Tommy John surgery, which wipes out his entire season. He returns in 2016, now as a full-time reliever and starting the season in A+, but by the end of the season already hits AAA. In 2017 he pitches well in AA and AAA, but is probably held back by not impressive SO/BB rates, while in 2018 opposing batters get too many hits off him in AAA, preventing a promotion to the majors on a team that is basically always battling for the division title and play-offs.
Before the 2019 season he becomes part of an impressive 3-team trade between the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners, including several major league players but also a couple of prospects like Cole Sulser, who ends up in Tampa Bay.
“It was really good for my career[...]I learned some new things about how they were viewing my pitching and ultimately they gave me an opportunity to reach the major league level, so I was super thankful for that.” - Cole Sulser in a 2022 interview published on YouTube
In 2019 Cole Sulser has a really good Spring Training for the Tampa Bay Rays, allowing just 3 hits in 8.1 innings. He starts the season for the Durham Bulls in AAA anyhow, but finally gets his shot at the major league level as a late September call-up.
“It brought tears to my eyes, it was a life-long dream that I was finally getting to accomplish.” - Cole Sulser in a 2022 interview published on YouTube
His debut for Tampa Bay in a game against Toronto isn’t great and he has some troubles finding the strike zone, but still leaves the game unscathed. He finishes that season pitching to a 0.00 ERA in 7 games, but at the end of the season is put on waivers, where he is claimed by the Baltimore Orioles.
His 2020 season on the Orioles is terrible, but he is able to start working with the pitching staff on his poor change up.
“I’m not going to say it worked very well. I was babying it. But it was something to throw at a different speed to get a hitter off the fastball, and that’s what I used it for back then, even if I was just kind of lobbing it in there. [...] I threw a lot of four-seam fastballs, so I threw it with a four-seam grip so that it would have the same spin as my four-seam. Mostly, I just relied on the velocity separation. It didn’t have great movement. I’ll be honest: it was never a very good pitch for me.” - Cole Sulser quoted on FanGraphs in 2021 on his “old” change up
Since he is on the worst team in the major leagues, he gets a new opportunity on the 2021 Orioles and ends the season being their closer. His success is the revamped change-up.
““I want it coming out like a fastball as much as possible, but I definitely want to make sure that I’m getting to the inside of the baseball. I try not to over-pronate, or pronate way early, but at the very end, when I’m finishing the pitch, I make sure that I’m working towards the inside of the ball a little bit more than I would on a fastball. The spin rate is around 1,600 [rpm], whereas I was spinning my old one closer to 2,000-2,100. Going to more of the split grip allowed me to take off a couple hundred RPMs, which helps produce a little bit more drag, a little bit more depth, and change the velocity.” - Cole Sulser quoted on FanGraphs in 2021 on his “new” change up
That is what the Marlins traded for when they acquired Sulser at the beginning of the season, looking to make some low-level acquisitions in order to make a surprise run in the NL East. But it definitely didn’t pan out like that because Sulser was DFAd recently after pitching to a 5.29 ERA and finishing the season in the minors. What happened?
The easy answer is: injury. Cole Sulser went onto the IL in June with a right lat strain.
“The latissimus dorsi is one of the largest muscles in your back. It’s sometimes referred to as your lats and is known for its large, flat “V” shape. It spans the width of your back and helps control the movement of your shoulders. When your latissimus dorsi is injured, you might feel pain in your low back, mid-to-upper back, along the base of your scapula, or in the back of the shoulder. You may even feel pain along the inside of the arm, all the way down to your fingers. Latissimus dorsi pain can be hard to differentiate from other types of back or shoulder pain. You’ll usually feel it in your shoulder, back, or upper or lower arm. The pain will worsen when you reach forward or extend your arms.” - Explanation on lat strain on healthline.com
We don’t know how long Cole Sulser was walking around with this injury in 2022, but it all started to unwind by the end of May. He started the 2022 season with diminished velocity already, although until May 30 he sported an ERA of just 2.50 and had contributed to 5 holds and 2 saves. His performance then got worse until he went onto the IL, but once he returned he didn’t regain velocity (91.9 mph in 2022 on the fastball vs 93.3 mph in 2021) nor the spin rates.
Sulser’s success is, like the player himself points out, that the change up and fastball need to come out of his hand alike, but where one has the velocity, the other has the sink. The renewed change up is his recipe for success and without it Sulser has hardly any future in the MLB, because even in 2021 his fastball was far from great (.279 BA, .500 SLG) but it was the combination with the change up (.125 BA in 2021 vs .294 BA in 2022) and the location that made his performance strong and achieved the above average swinging strikes.
That becomes all the clearer if we look at the location of his pitches in 2021 and 2022, where you can easily see that the diminished velocity on the fastball basically provoked a very hittable pitch and the diminished velocity on the change up led to more walks but also to more hittable pitches.
So, once again, it is a bit of a project that requires quite some work here. The job for Sulser is to become “perfect” again with the right velocity on both pitches and good location and he will have the entire off-season to get the additional rest for his lat strain and getting back into shape for the 2023 season. If that works out, the D-Backs will have a reliever accustomed to high-leverage situations who does extremely well against left-handed hitters although he was also good against right-handed batters in his 2021 season.