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Analyzing Gerrit Cole’s 2021 Opening Day start

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Despite failing to make it through six innings with a lead, Gerrit Cole displayed flashes of why the Yankees promised him a third of a billion dollars last offseason.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

In his first Bronx start with fans in attendance, Gerrit Cole ultimately disappointed — at the very least himself, based on his own reaction — earning a no decision in the Yankees’ extra-inning loss, but flashed all the ingredients of what’s made him so special in each of the past several seasons. At times, Cole showcased the very best version of both his fastball and slider, but lacked the polish that separates the elite throwers from the game’s premier pitchers.

By pounding the zone with his sublime stuff — a fastball that neared triple-digits and a pair of knee-buckling breakers — he racked up eight strikeouts through just 5.1 innings, one off the franchise Opening Day record. Specifically, he owned the down-and-outside corner against the righty heavy Jays lineup with his fastball and slider, catching Jays batters looking for something better to hit until it was too late.

While he was able to dot the corner with regularity to put batters away, he wasn’t free from a handful of harmful mistakes. Most of the time, Cole’s stuff is so overpowering he can get away with poor placement — blowing hitters away with force instead of carving them up with craft. For example, Cole was fortunate to induce a groundout for the third out of the top of the first with this middle-middle fastball (6) to Bo Bichette.

At 96.8 mph with excellent run and rise, this belt-high heater was more missile than meatball.

Other times, he wasn’t so lucky. This, as they say, ain’t it:

When Cole flipped a hanger over to Teoscar Hernandez in the sixth, he lost a chance at a victory and spoiled his sensational outing up until that point.

Before the pitch, Gary Sánchez clearly sets up for a slider in the same location he struck Hernandez out in the fourth, but Cole leaves it right down the middle. Big league hitters punish mistakes, even those from the mighty Gerrit Cole. When Cole is dotting his spots, he’s virtually unhittable. When he leaves offerings in the heart of the zone, like he did with unusual frequency through the first part of 2020, he becomes merely mortal.

After the Yankees backed up the Brinks to ink Gerrit Cole to a nine-year contract before the 2020 season, the franchise and its supporters longed for him to lead the franchise back to the promised land for the first time in a decade. At first, a relatively rocky start to the season saw his strikeout rates return from orbit, and an ERA that was higher than it had ever been with the Astros. However, that slow start faded into a nails stretch run and postseason, alleviating all fears that the Gerrit Cole of 2019 was gone forever.

In fact, a similar trend had actually been borne in that previous season, Cole’s best. He cruised through the season’s first half, limiting opposing batters to a 66 OPS+ compared to a league average of 100. In the second half, he went to 11, limiting batters to a paltry 34 OPS+. With this pattern having been imprinted in the collective baseball watcher’s mind so recently, many assumed that Cole was merely following his typical pattern of performance. Even further, with the shortened season, it seemed as though if Cole had been given a full 30-start slate instead of 2020’s 12, his increasingly dominant rate stats would have eventually risen to meet his previous peaks.

After Thursday’s suboptimal start, it may very well be that as he’s improved, Cole has learned to find that almost unbeatable groove as the season goes on. In a sense, by raising the ceiling of his peak performance, Cole could now be considered a slow starter, at least in comparison to himself.

Nonetheless, from pregame excitement to his post-performance self-appraisal of his start to the season, it doesn’t seem as though he’s particularly interested in anything expect improving.

It’s far too soon to draw conclusions about exactly what Cole will look like for the remainder of 2021, but the puzzle pieces are undoubtedly still there. The question for this season remains: how quickly, consistently, and completely can he put them together?