Aaron Judge has had the best selling jersey in baseball for three straight seasons. Mike Trout is the most talented player most of us have ever seen. Juan Soto had a star-making World Series run with the Nationals. Baseball is flush with dynamic, exciting players, and yet the biggest star of them all may be budding in the Bronx.
Over the past two winters, Gerrit Cole has come into his own, both as a pitcher and a really famous one. His signing with the New York Yankees, the most recognizable and successful brand in North American sports, straps a rocket to his own brand and, in my view, catapults him into the conversation for the biggest superstar in the game.
There are a few qualities that go into making a star player, and the first is on-field performance. Cole has that in spades, redefining what a dominant pitcher looks like in this era of baseball. A sizable contract is more of a signal of a star than an inherent quality, but Cole’s got that too.
There also needs to be a certain chip on a guy’s shoulder, to engender the kind of emotional reaction fans need to rally behind, or in opposition to, a star player - Judge playing New York, New York in Boston during the ALDS or Juan Soto’s shimmy in the box, that sort of thing. Cole made headlines after the World Series by sporting a Boras Corp hat rather than the conventional Astros cap, the exact type of flash that inspires praise and silly condemnation in response, a crucial element of stardom.
The last ingredient in a star is a certain level of self-awareness. Stars know they’re stars - it’s impossible to not be aware you’re one of the absolute best at your job, or to not see your jersey worn by thousands at a stadium. Yet self-awareness is often the most difficult tool for a star to fashion; and often is the difference between stars and villains. Derek Jeter and David Ortiz were incredibly self-aware as players, while Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds weren’t. The differences in perception between these players, despite the “villains” being objectively better baseball players, boils down in a lot of ways to that level of self-awareness.
I think that’s what struck me most about learning more about Gerrit Cole; he genuinely seems to understand himself as a person and how he fits in the wider spectrum of baseball. This is a guy who bet on himself by telegraphing he wouldn’t sign after being drafted out of high school, who went to the Houston Astros with eyes and mind wide open to changing, and talks about the game in a way that few players do:
I didn't share this yesterday, but I asked Gerrit Cole about thanking Marvin Miller and Curt Flood, and his answer included a romantic explanation for why we love baseball and its stories. It's one of the best extemporaneous descriptions of the sport I've heard in a minute: pic.twitter.com/3qDxBIOY3S— Rustin Dodd (@rustindodd) December 19, 2019
Cole’s helped out a lot by his particular role in baseball. Starting pitchers are often the “main character” of a baseball game, dominating the pregame conversations, the focus of almost every camera closeup, and a pitcher’s performance will often dictate how we talk about the results of a game. Position players may play every day, but as we’ve seen with Mike Trout, the best of them all may only touch the ball once a game. Great starters have always been a vehicle to drive the conversations around baseball, and Cole’s no exception.
I said before, both on these pages and in private, that acquiring Cole has been my favorite Yankee move in ages, even more than Giancarlo Stanton. There’s nobody better in the game right now, and nobody that better suits what the Yankees need. There’s also nobody better fitted to become the biggest star in baseball - Cole perfectly balances on-field dominance with the behavior fans gravitate toward. My expectations for him are sky-high, and I can’t believe we’re so far from spring training.