NEW YORK — Gerrit Cole walked into a conference room after one of his first spring training workouts with the Houston Astros in February 2018 and was met by about 10 people.
"There was charts, video, matching charts," Cole recalled. "It was all new then, but it's pretty straightforward to me now."
Cole transformed into perhaps the best pitcher in the major leagues after that one-hour presentation, increasing the usage of his four-seam fastball and curveball, pretty much dropping his two-seam sinker and attacking the top of the strike zone far more frequently.
With the Astros and Yankees tied at one game apiece in the AL Championship Series, Cole is 18-0 in his last 24 starts heading into his matchup Tuesday night against New York ace Luis Severino.
"It's a blast. This is the big stage," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "It's rowdy from the first pitch on. It will bring some adrenaline out of you."
Houston may be known for oil, but this October it's been Cole country. He is pitching his way into a post-season elite that includes Christy Mathewson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Orel Hershiser and Madison Bumgarner.
Once upon a time, the Astros remembered May 22 for hitting into a triple play.
Now it's notable as the last time Cole lost.
Taken first overall by Pittsburgh in the 2011 amateur draft, Cole was 59-42 with a 3.50 ERA in five major league seasons when he was dealt to Houston in January 2018 for right-handers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran and outfielder Jason Martin. Since that spring training meeting, his regular season record is 35-10.
Pitching coach Brent Strom did most of the talking during the discussion, joined by bullpen coach Josh Miller, minor league pitching co-ordinator Doug White, manager of major league advance information Tom Koch-Weser and Brandon Taubman, senior director of research and development and a former Ernst & Young derivative valuation expert.
"I just hadn't dove into that whole realm much before. So I guess that was most surprising, that you could even like forecast what a pitch would project to be like against the rest of the league," Cole said.
Hinch considers the presentation a trade secret, not surprising for an organization whose analytics team employed former NASA biomathematician Sig Mejdal, now with Baltimore.
"The preparation behind the scenes for what goes into the meetings and the communication with our players is unmatched in my time in the game," said Hinch, in pro baseball for about a quarter-century. "Selling them is about providing them as much information as you can in an environment that's a two-way street and applying it onto the field, which is what the player is in charge of. So that's about as much detail as I'm going to give you about our meetings because it's something that we consider very important to the development of our players."
Cole threw just over 8% of his pitches in the upper third of the strike zone during his last season with the Pirates and another 11.5% wide of the upper third or above, according to Brooks Baseball. This year he threw nearly 13% in the upper third plus 21% high and wide.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone marvels at Cole's "ability to really pitch at the top of the strike zone with his high-end fastball and really command it up there. Throw it at the top or expand just enough to get swings. And then a couple of electric breaking balls."
Cole has a 1.66 ERA since that loss to the Chicago White Sox, when Jake Marisnak bounced into a 5-4-3 triple play. He reached double-digit strikeouts in 23 of 35 starts this year, including his last 11, and fanned at least one batter in 73 consecutive innings from Aug. 1 to Game 5 of the Division Series, the longest streak since 1961 by 33 innings.
He leaves a breeze at the plate: He induced 33 swings and misses in Game 2 against the Rays, the most in a post-season game since MLB started tracking the stat in 2008. In beating Tampa Bay in Games 2 and 5, he allowed one run and six hits in 15 2/3 innings, striking out 25 and walking three.
Cole's winning streak is the longest by a pitcher in a year since Rube Marquard began 19-0 for the 1912 New York Giants, winning 18 of 19 starts and getting a victory and save in three relief appearances. Those 19 straight winning decisions matched the record set by the Giants' Tim Keefe in 1888.
Times were different: Marquard had 16 complete games during that stretch. Cole has two during seven big league seasons, the last a one-hitter at Arizona on May 4 last year. Marquard was nicknamed the $11,000 Peach and $11,000 Beauty, a reference to the price the Giants paid Indianapolis for the right-hander in 1908.
Cole put himself in position for a $200 million-plus contract as a free agent this off-season. Perhaps with the Yankees, the team he rooted for growing up?
New York drafted him 28th overall in 2008 but Cole chose to attend UCLA. At times he wondered what his career would have been like in pinstripes, especially when Pittsburgh was considering trades.
"I don't want to be dishonest and tell you that it didn't cross my mind. Obviously I got drafted by them, so I thought about it then," he said. "And all the rumours going around, it's kind of hard to control what you hear. But as of late it's just been not a thought at all."
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