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Gerrit Cole’s first year as a Yankee was one for the ages

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Signing Gerrit Cole was by far the biggest splash the Yankees had made in free agency in almost a decade. How does his first full season stack up amongst the greats?

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it’s been a truly bizarre journey to get here, but Gerrit Cole has, at long last, finally amassed enough starts to mark a complete season as a New York Yankee. When creating 162-game averages, Baseball Reference sets the benchmark for starting pitchers at 34 games, and Cole officially hit that mark his last time out when he threw a gem against the Los Angeles Angels.

In December 2019, Gerrit Cole signed a 10-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees, a massive amount of money to spend on a high-strikeout, high-velocity pitcher approaching thirty. But Cole’s performance — both past and present — more than justified the amount.

In 34 starts across the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Gerrit Cole has gone 18-9 with a 2.97 ERA and 279 strikeouts over 209 innings. In that time, he has posted a 145 ERA+, indicating that he’s been roughly 45 percent better than the league average starting pitcher, a truly elite 3.24 FIP, and accrued 5.5 fWAR. Cole isn’t just a regular season pitcher, though. In three playoff games, Cole has gone 2-0 with a 2.95 ERA and an ungodly 30 strikeouts in 18.1 innings pitched. He also finished fourth in Cy Young voting last year and made an All-Star appearance this year.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, Gerrit Cole has been every bit the ace the Yankees were expecting when they signed him to the aforementioned massive contract. While we can spend all day talking about just how good he’s been, looking at his first full year as a Yankee got me thinking: how does his early success stack up against other big Yankee free agent pitcher acquisitions? For this little thought exercise, I’m going back to the Yankees’ three other biggest signings from the past 20 years: Mike Mussina, CC Sabathia, and Masahiro Tanaka.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at New York Yankees Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Signed for $88.5 million over six years in 2000, Mussina solidified his Hall of Fame résumé over his eight-year Yankee tenure, despite never making a single All-Star appearance and never finishing higher than fifth in Cy Young voting. I’m going to stop here momentarily to get my hot take out of the way early: Despite his induction in Cooperstown, Mike Mussina is still baseball’s most underrated pitcher of the late-1990s.

In his first season as a New York Yankee, Mike Mussina defined “workhorse” by pitching to a 17-11 record with a 3.15 ERA across 228.2 innings. He also struck out 214 batters while only walking 42, registered a 143 ERA+ with a career-low 2.92 FIP, and accrued 6.4 fWAR. When it mattered the most, Mussina was even better, pitching to a 2.63 ERA in 24 innings pitched across four postseason games. The Yankees went 3-1 in games he started.

Though this didn’t happen in his debut season for the Yankees, no article that mentions Mussina’s greatness, no matter how briefly, is complete without recalling this fun little event:

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Next up is clubhouse leader and fan favourite CC Sabathia. In 2008, Sabathia signed a seven-year, $161 million contract after logging a historic half-season as a trade deadline acquisition for the Milwaukee Brewers. In 11 seasons as a New York Yankee, Sabathia made three All-Star appearances, finished in the top-5 of Cy Young voting three times, and helped bring the World Series trophy back to New York in 2009. Needless to say, he lived up to his contract.

In his first season as a Yankee, Sabathia finished fourth in Cy Young voting as he went 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA across a whopping 230 innings pitched. He struck out 197 batters, pitched to a 137 ERA+, posted a 3.39 FIP, and accrued 5.8 fWAR. In the postseason, Sabathia was downright dominant, pitching to a ridiculous 1.98 ERA and striking out 32 batters across 36.1 innings pitched. The Yankees went 4-1 in games in which he started.

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, the last big non-Gerrit Cole free agent splash for the Yankees was none other than the (also drastically underappreciated) Masahiro Tanaka. In 2014, after a truly ridiculous season in Japan where he posted video game numbers, the Yankees signed Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million deal. In seven years with the Yankees, Tanaka appeared in two All-Star games, finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting, had a top-10 finish in Cy Young voting in 2016, and pitched in a countless number of huge games for the team.

Unfortunately, Tanaka’s first season as a Yankee was cut short due to a partially torn UCL, whereas Cole’s body has stayed healthy for the past year aside from his recent COVID-IL stint. Despite the injury, Tanaka managed to go 13-5 with a sparkling 2.77 ERA while striking out 141 batters across 136.1 innings pitched. He posted a 138 ERA+, a career-low 3.04 FIP, and accrued 2.9 fWAR. On the whole, Tanaka’s first season as a Yankee was a remarkable one. It’s just too bad that the team around him wasn’t particularly good (they missed the playoffs for the second year in a row in 2014) and UCLs are a flimsy ligament.

No matter what metric you use, Gerrit Cole’s first full season as a Yankee ranks right amongst the best in team history: Second in wins (if you care about that stat), second in ERA, first in strikeouts, and first in ERA+. Hell, even the stats he ranks third or fourth in are still elite numbers. And, though it’s not truly quantifiable in a numbers sense, the energy and leadership he brings to the clubhouse night in, night out has not gone unnoticed amongst the fanbase.

But, looking at this grid, one thing becomes apparent. As of late, the Yankees penny-pinching ways when it comes to free agency have soured a lot of fans’ perception of the front office. When looking at the latest big-money pitcher free agent signings, though, it’s clear that, when the Yankees go all-in and break the bank to sign an ace, they typically get it right. We still have a long way to go with Gerrit Cole, but the ROI has been exceptional so far.