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Where does Gerrit Cole’s start rank in Yankees history?

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Here are the best five season starts by a Yankees pitcher.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone involved with the Yankees has reveled in watching Gerrit Cole do Gerrit Cole things over his first three starts of 2021. His performances have been both exciting to watch and a welcome respite from what’s been an otherwise sluggish start for the Yankees on a team level.

His early dominance has been widely noted and discussed, but while taking in his latest outing, I started to wonder about just how historic his start has been. Have Cole’s first three starts to the 2021 season been the best first three starts by a pitcher in team history?

To answer that question, I did some digging and looked through early season starts for Yankee pitchers going back to 1947, and picked out what I felt were the best ones. As you can imagine given the Yankees history, I came across numerous eyebrow raising performances spanning multiple eras.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve indeed watched one of the most dominating starts to a season by a starting pitcher in team history - at least going back to integration - no secret there. But let’s take a closer look at the numbers and see where Cole ranks among other Yankee pitchers who also came out of the gate blazing.

A note on criteria used: I looked at pitchers’ first three starts of a season only, and they must have pitched a minimum of 18 innings over those three starts. For comparative purposes I used hits allowed, strikeouts, walks and ERA. All of those measuring sticks have imperfections to varying extents of course, but they’ll do fine for both today’s purpose and brevity.

Here are what I believe to be the best first three starts of a season by a Yankee, in chronologically reversed order:

Best First Three Starts by Yankees Pitchers

Pitcher IP H SO BB ERA
Pitcher IP H SO BB ERA
Gerrit Cole, 2021 18.1 12 29 3 1.47
Mike Mussina, 2002 21.2 11 18 2 1.66
David Cone, 1997 20 11 29 9 1.8
Jimmy Key, 1993 23 12 13 3 0.39
Ron Guidry, 1986 19 15 15 3 1.42

Obviously, there are plenty variables difficult to accurately account for at play, such as quality of opponent, parks effects, and how many pitches starters were allowed to throw. All of those factors and a few others exceed the scope of one article. Other variables, such as strikeout and walk rates by season, we can weigh to a certain extent. With that in mind, here’s my breakdown and order of the above pitchers’ performances:

5. Ron Guidry, 1986

A strikeout to walk ratio of 5.8/1 when the league average in 1986 was 1.7/1 makes Guidry’s start far more dominating than it may appear at first glance.

4. Gerrit Cole, 2021

Cole’s ability to avoid contact without allowing free passes has been otherworldly – 29 strikeouts with only three walks jumps off the stat line. But when the high strikeout and strikeout to walk rates of this era are weighed (currently 9.5/1 and 2.7/1 respectively) I have to drop Cole behind…

3. David Cone, 1997

Only 11 hits allowed in 20 innings combined with a strikeout rate of 13.1 per 9 innings over that stretch is impressive enough. When you consider the strikeout rate was more than double the league average (6.4 per 9 innings league wide) the performance becomes jaw dropping. When that context is considered, Cone’s strikeout rate was much better than Cole’s, which, impressive as it is, is “only” 1.52 times better than average so far this season.

2. Jimmy Key 1993

Key only allowed 15 baserunners over 23 innings at the start of 1993, and his strikeout to walk rate of 4.3 to 1 was almost 3 times better than the American League average. As a pitcher who was not overpowering, it’s fair to ask if the low hit total might have been due to good fortune. But given the lack of free passes, the relatively high strikeout rate, and Key’s career track record, it’s more likely he was in total command, generating tons of soft contact and whiffs for three games. As you can see, that combination led to the lowest ERA by far in the group above.

1. Mike Mussina 2002

5.1 hits per 9 innings and only 6.1 base runners per nine innings are both the best of the group, and a 9/1 strikeout to walk ratio – close to 5 times better than league average in ’02 – is next-level dominance. Even without the adjustment for the era, his strikeout to walk ratio is a virtual tie with Cole’s. To me, that makes it the best first three starts to open a season in Yankees’ history.

What does this mean for Gerrit Cole and the Yankees going through the 2021 season? Not a heck lot of course, given the very small sample size. For what it’s worth, Cone and Key went on to have phenomenal seasons in ’97 and ’93 respectively, Guidry had a solid but not great ‘86, and Mussina went on to have a sub-par, by his very high standards, 2002 season.

At this point, it’s just good news for Yankee fans. It’s a great pitcher continuing to meet lofty expectations, and it’s some sunshine in what’s been an otherwise overcast start for the Yankees.

*If you’re curious, here are some honorable mentions: Vic Raschi 1949, Eddie Lopat 1951, Whitey Ford 1955, Rudy May 1981, Orlando Hernandez 2000, Kevin Brown 2004, Randy Johnson 2006, Chien-Ming Wang 2008.