The adjustment driving Cole’s Cy Young push

May 7th, 2023

By his lofty standards, Yankees ace ’s 2022 season was a bit underwhelming.

Cole entered the year as the favorite of many to win the AL Cy Young Award, and while he led the Majors with 257 K’s, he also recorded his highest ERA -- 3.50, only 10% better than the MLB average -- since his days with the Pirates, a product of allowing an AL-high 33 homers.

It’s been a much different story in 2023. Through seven starts, Cole still hasn't surrendered a home run, and his newfound stinginess is fueling the best start to a season in his career.

On Sunday, the unstoppable force will meet the immovable object when the 32-year-old takes on the 27-7 Rays, who lead the Majors in home runs.

Cole, who was named AL Pitcher of the Month on Wednesday, will carry a 1.35 ERA into Sunday’s outing, the lowest mark he’s posted through his first seven starts in a single season.

This is only the third time in Cole's career, and the first time since 2018, that he has gone seven straight starts at any point without serving up a homer.

The right-hander is actually recording whiffs and strikeouts at his lowest rates since 2017, his last year with Pittsburgh, but he’s doing a much better job of suppressing quality contact than he did in any of his first three seasons with New York:

  • His barrel rate, the percentage of batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in extra-base hits, is down to 4.6% after he allowed a barrel rate above 9% in each of the past three seasons.
  • His average fly-ball distance is 301 feet, down from 319 across 2020-22.
  • His expected slugging percentage, which is based on quality of contact and K’s, is .309, down from .377 across 2020-22.

An elite four-seam fastball is at the heart of his dominance in 2023. His four-seamer usage rate is up significantly since last year, and it’s been the most valuable pitch in baseball, in terms of run value.

Most valuable pitches, 2023:

  • 1. Cole’s 4-seamer: -11 runs
  • 2. Roansy Contreras’ slider: -9 runs
  • 3-T. Shohei Ohtani’s sweeper: -8 runs
  • 3-T. Framber Valdez’s sinker: -8 runs
  • 3-T Vince Velasquez’s slider: -8 runs
  • 3-T. Yennier Cano’s sinker: -8 runs
  • 3-T. Jordan Montgomery's sinker: -8 runs

Every pitch is assigned a run value based on its outcome (ball, strike, home run, etc). Negative number = runs prevented for pitcher.

While his velocity is down a tick, Cole has been much sharper with his location, as you can see when comparing his four-seam fastball heatmaps from 2022 and 2023.

The numbers align with the visuals -- the righty is throwing his four-seamer to the edges of the strike zone more frequently, and in turn leaving it in the heart of the plate less frequently.

More specifically, he's made two key changes to his four-seamer location.

1) He's throwing more elevated four-seamers

When Cole first arrived in Houston prior to the 2018 season, throwing more elevated fastballs is one of the factors that led to his ascent to elite status. However, he got away from that last season -- less than 41% of his four-seamers came in the upper-third of the strike zone or higher. This year, it’s 61.8%.

Percentage of Cole's 4-seamers that were elevated:

  • 2017: 34.3% (final season with Pirates)
  • 2018: 56.4% (joined Astros)
  • 2019: 58.0%
  • 2020: 58.4% (joined Yankees)
  • 2021: 55.2%
  • 2022: 40.8%
  • 2023: 61.8%

You might think throwing more heaters up in the zone would lead to more homers, but Cole has recorded a lower HR/FB rate and xSLG, in addition to a higher whiff rate and popup rate, on elevated four-seamers than he has on four-seamers in all other locations throughout his career.

Cole on elevated four-seamers, since 2018:

Cole on four-seamers in all other locations, since 2018:

2) He's pounding the ball inside more

In addition to his re-emphasis on elevation, Cole has been throwing his four-seamer inside much more often than he did in 2022, against both right-handed batters and left-handed batters.

Against righties, Cole has thrown 49.5% of his four-seamers to the inner-third of the plate or further inside, compared to just 24.1% in 2022. Against lefties, he’s gone from 21.0% in 2022 to 37.0% in 2023.

Again, the difference is clearly visible when you compare his heatmaps. (Heatmaps below are from the catcher's perspective.)

Here are his four-seamer heatmaps against right-handed batters from the past two seasons:

And here's the same thing against left-handed batters:

The effect of this increase is two-fold: inside fastballs are not only tough to hit, they also serve the purpose of making it more difficult for batters to hunt for pitches out over the plate, as they have to be more cognizant of protecting the inside corner.

Last season, batters had considerable success when Cole threw a pitch either to the outer- or middle-third of the plate -- lefties hit 11 homers and slugged .461, while righties hit 13 homers and slugged .484.

On these pitches in 2023, lefties are 5-for-37 (.135) with a .162 SLG, while righties are 10-for-41 (.244) with a .317 SLG.

Cole’s improved four-seamer command also has helped him to better control the count in 2023, contributing to a dramatic spike in his first-pitch strike rate -- from 61.5% to 72.3%, year over year. When Cole has gone to his four-seamer to start off a plate appearance, he's thrown a strike 76.0% of the time (61.9% in 2022).

Cole has been practically untouchable when he's thrown a first-pitch strike in 2023, holding batters to a .134 average and .368 OPS in 104 plate appearances after going up 0-1 in the count.

Cole's incredible performance has been crucial for a New York club missing three-fifths of its projected starting rotation, as well as sluggers and . The Yankees are 7-0 in games started by Cole and 11-16 in games started by everyone else.

Cole has a long way to go in his quest for his first Cy Young Award. However, the adjustments he's made this year have him on an early path toward claiming the elusive accolade.