Real or not? Gerrit Cole's approach bringing Cy Young results

Gerrit Cole keeps piling up impressive numbers: 4-1, 1.43 ERA, 86 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings. Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports

The big news Wednesday was the Yankees’ dramatic win over the Red Sox, as they scored four runs in the eighth inning for a 9-6 victory and their 17th win in 18 games, but we have that covered elsewhere on ESPN.com. Instead, let’s examine two of the most valuable players in the early going.

King Cole: You know Gerrit Cole is having a good season when he allows one run and strikes out nine in six innings, and the best the Astros’ Twitter account can come up with is “Cole did Cole things.” I mean, he was pretty good, though he wasn’t as good as in his previous start, when he pitched a one-hitter with 16 strikeouts. That effort produced a Game Score of 100, the highest in Astros history for a nine-inning game.

With the Astros’ 4-1 win over the A’s on Wednesday, Cole ran his record to 4-1 with a 1.43 ERA. The peripheral stats are just as appealing: 56.2 IP, 30 H, 12 BB, 86 SO, 3 HR. Let’s get into what he’s doing, first comparing some of his 2017 numbers with the Pirates to his hot start to 2018, with his rank among qualified starters in each category:

Those are the results. Cole was solid across the board in 2017, with a high home run rate leading to a 4.26 ERA. The increase in strikeout rate and swing-and-miss rate is phenomenal -- and note that his ground ball rate has plummeted.

As you might expect, and as others have reported, it’s a change in philosophy. The Pirates like two-seamers and ground balls; the Astros like four-seamers and strikeouts. You can see the difference in Cole's fastball location:

He’s actually throwing fewer fastballs overall, however, and more offspeed stuff:


Fastball: 60.1 percent

Slider: 17.2 percent

Curveball: 12.2 percent

Changeup: 5.9 percent


Fastball: 53.6 percent

Slider: 21.8 percent

Curveball: 18.8 percent

Changeup: 5.9 percent

Of course, the execution has been excellent as well, as Cole is throwing more strikes, which allows him to get into a few more advantageous counts each game. His miss rate on swings on pitches outside the zone has increased from 36 percent to 57 percent, which helps explain the lower batting average. Cole has been so dominant that this looks like something more than a hot streak. It seems to be real improvement that should result in Cy Young contention.

There’s something else in the mix here as well, something less quantifiable. I heard Charlie Morton, who also played with Cole in Pittsburgh, on MLB Radio the other day, and he talked about how Cole just looks more relaxed, like he doesn’t have to be The Man like he was expected to be in Pittsburgh. You can’t analyze that in numbers, but you can analyze it in the results. Maybe not having that extra weight on his shoulders has helped Cole become a better pitcher.

On the mark: The Braves beat the Rays 5-2 for their seventh straight road victory, and one of the heroes was Nick Markakis, who jumped all over this 90 mph sinker from Ryan Yarbrough in the third inning:

The 34-year-old vet is now hitting .338/.419/.554, ranking 13th in the majors in wOBA, at .423 -- almost 100 points higher than in 2017, when he ranked 107th among qualified hitters. He has seven home runs already after hitting just eight in 2017 (when he played 160 games). Markakis has had some big years before, but his two really good ones came early in his career with the Orioles, back in 2007 and 2008, when he hit .300 with 20-plus home runs and 43-plus doubles each season. Baseball-Reference.com actually rates Markakis as the best position player in the AL in 2008, when he posted a .406 OBP and, thanks to 17 outfield assists, had terrific defensive metrics.

Since that season, he has been durable but hardly a star. In his first three seasons with the Braves, Markakis averaged 1.4 WAR, which placed him as a below-average regular. In looking at his numbers this year, the first thing that jumps out is that his strikeout rate is way down -- from 16.4 percent in 2017 to 8.1 percent. If only more players would follow this lead. Even though Markakis' BABIP is basically the same, .333 this season versus .324, his batting average is up from .275 to .338.

Markakis is swinging a little more (about 3 percent more often than in 2017) and missing a little less (though he has had years when he has missed less often), so it’s more about swinging at the right pitches. His swing rate on 0-0 and 1-0 counts, for example, is up 5.3 percent. Still, he’s always had pretty good plate discipline, and that has remained intact. As you might have expected, however, his launch angle has increased, from 8.6 percent on average to 13.0 percent. More fly balls equals more home runs. We’ll see if he can keep it going -- and maybe even make his first All-Star team.

By the way, as Joe Posnanski recently wrote, Markakis has a chance at 3,000 hits. He’s at 2,099, and if he ages well, it could happen. That’s what durability and a .288 career average can do. (As Joe pointed out, Johnny Damon was in basically the same position and faltered at the end.) Is Markakis a Hall of Fame player? Of course not. But what if he does get to 3,000?

Home run of the day: Do you want to see Aaron Judge hit a home run off Craig Kimbrel? Of course you do:

It’s OK if you smile, Aaron. After all, Statcast clocked that home run at 117.0 mph, making it the hardest-hit ball Kimbrel has allowed since tracking began in 2015.

By the way, the most impressive thing about the Yankees' streak is the teams they're beating. If you weight each game individually, the average win percentage of their opponents is .564, or the equivalent of a 91-win team.

No-hitter and strikeout follow-up: Two pieces to point your attention to:

We didn’t have a no-hit bid on Wednesday, but we did have the Angels spinning an 8-0 shutout at Coors Field behind rookie Jaime Barria and three relievers, which is pretty impressive. We had Carlos Carrasco returning to form with 14 strikeouts for Cleveland in a complete-game win over the Brewers. But maybe no game sums up modern pitching like Nick Pivetta’s start for the Phillies against the Giants in an 11-2 thrashing. He went five innings and allowed no runs and no walks with seven K’s -- yet somehow managed to throw 96 pitches. That’s how we get the parade of relievers.