One of the weirdest things about this season was cheering for a Yankee team that was largely driven by the pitching staff. They’re supposedly called the Bronx Bombers, but a strong bullpen and surprises in the starting rotation were the reason they made the playoffs, and today, we’re ranking the five best starts of 2021.
5 - Tie, Jameson Taillon, 10/3/2021 vs. Tampa Bay, and Nestor Cortes Jr., 9/15/2021 at Baltimore
Right off the bat, we’re breaking the rules, because we have a tie for fifth place. Neither start ranks particularly high on metrics like Gamescore, but both represent the apex of each pitcher’s season. It’s fair to be a little let down by Taillon’s 2021, between inconsistency and injury, but on the final day of the season, when the Yankees absolutely had to win, he delivered.
Playing on a torn ankle tendon, Jamo worked into the fourth inning against a Tampa team that did not rest their starters, allowing no runs against the division winner. It’s a start that may be lost to posterity, and certainly didn’t share in the excitement that came out of Aaron Judge’s walkoff single later that day, but a blowup would have put the Yankees in a tiebreaker Game 163, and Taillon played a huge role in keeping the rotation set for the Wild Card Game.
Cortes Jr., meanwhile, is perhaps more impressive for the entire body of work in 2021 rather than any one isolated start, but his 6.1 innings of one run, 11 strikeout ball against the Orioles was his most dominant outing of the year. Nasty Nestor is kind of the poster child for the sum being greater than the whole of the parts, but against a team the Yankees had struggled to best all year, he put it all together and showed off just why he was such a huge surprise this year.
4 - Jordan Montgomery, 5/21/2021 vs Chicago White Sox
I suspect that a lot of us think of Jordan Montgomery as a nice complimentary piece in the rotation, but not a guy you necessarily want taking the ball immediately after Gerrit Cole, and that perception may be due for review this winter. Gumby was one of the thirty or so best pitchers in all of baseball in 2021, establishing himself as a bona fide No. 2 in any rotation except for the likes of the Brewers and Dodgers.
And that late May start against a loaded White Sox lineup was the unofficial arrival of Jordan Montgomery, Legitimately Good Starter.
Monty rode a buckling curveball, throwing it a third of the time, to a seven-inning, 11 strikeout, no walk outing. The Yankees won the game 2-1, and while it might be remembered best for a triple play in the top of the ninth, followed by a walkoff single from Gleyber Torres, pitching aficionados have this start burned in their minds.
3 - Gerrit Cole, 9/1/2021 at LA Angels
I don’t know who will throw the next 20 strikeout game, but any betting market has to have Gerrit Cole right near the top of the list. The closest he got in 2021 was a start in Southern California, sitting down 15 Angels over seven innings without walking a single batter.
If you needed more evidence that Cole is an ace with or without sticky stuff, this start was it. His fastball and slider sat just south of his season average spin rate, but he was able to engineer more than half of his whiffs via his two primary offerings, completely fooling the Halos while striking out presumptive AL MVP Shohei Ohtani three times.
2 - Gerrit Cole, 7/10/2021 at Houston
Oh hey, another Gerrit Cole start, and another start after the sticky stuff crackdown. Funny, that.
They say you can’t go home again, but Cole did just that, returning to Houston after two seasons where he was a top-5 Cy Young finalist both years, and won the AL pennant in 2019. On that Saturday afternoon, Cole treated Houston to a taste of their old medicine with a complete game shutout, featuring a spirited conversation with Yankee skipper Aaron Boone in the final frame:
Gerrit Cole on his conversation with Aaron Boone in the 9th inning:— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) July 11, 2021
“I said the F-word a lot and I kind of just blacked out" pic.twitter.com/ZO8V96v1Sq
1 - Corey Kluber, 5/19/2021 at Texas
This one really does speak for itself. Corey Kluber, in a season that wasn’t quite lost but close to it, facing the team he pitched just one inning for a year before, threw the 12th no-hitter in Yankee history, the first since David Cone was perfect in 1999.
Every no-no is special, but this one was particularly wonderful for me, since covering a no-hitter has been something I’ve wanted to do since joining this site. As my career’s accelerated a little and I’m reducing the amount of writing I’m doing here, Kluber was kind enough to give me the one start to cover that I really wanted. Even Michael Kay, whose exuberance, while a trademark, can sometimes come off a bit goofy, had a perfect call. Kluber became part of forever.