You might say that Gerrit Cole was signed to start game one of a playoff series — the ace of the AL, exactly the guy who gets the ball to start the ALDS, and then again in a possible game five. This year, with the Yankees clawing for their playoff lives, it may not be Cole’s performance in the division round that determines the Yankee season, but how the club uses him in the final nine games of the season.
By the time you’ll read this, we’ll all know how Cole did in his start Friday night at Fenway, and we know that he’ll take the mound for one of the games in the upcoming Blue Jays series. The Yankees are off Monday, so he could line up for the second game of that Jays series on Wednesday on regular rest. This would require skipping another Yankee in the rotation, but I think getting Cole in on the Wednesday instead of the Thursday is critical.
Cole, Nestor Cortes Jr., and Jordan Montgomery all throw against the Red Sox, as the Yankees send their best in the biggest series of the season. After the off day, they can start the NEXT biggest series of the season in Toronto with Corey Kluber, followed by Cole and Cortes on regular rest.
Now maybe the Yankees go 6-0 in those two series, but more likely they face a situation where they still need at least one win at home against Tampa in the season’s final series, and here’s where the risk calculus starts. Cole could go on short rest on Sunday if he needed to, which would be the first time he’s started on three days’ rest in the regular season, though of course, the Yankees’ ace did make a start on short rest last season in the ALDS against those very same Rays, throwing 5.1 innings of one-run ball.
I’m not super worried about Cole going on short rest — he’s said publicly that he prefers when the stakes are high, and was champing at the bit to work in Game Seven of the 2019 World Series on what would have been two days rest — but what happens if the Yankee situation is more complex on that final Sunday than just “win and you’re in”?
If a win on the last day of the season is needed to secure a Wild Card slot, you start Cole. Jordan Montgomery has been very good this season, and I’m comfortable knowing he can handle a Wild Card start if Cole can deliver a win on the last day of the season. But what’s interesting to me, is what the Yankees do if they have a postseason slot locked up, but not their seeding.
So let’s say the Yankees and Red Sox are tied headed into the final day of the year, and the Blue Jays are two games or more out. We have our two Wild Card teams, but we don’t know who hosts the one-game playoff. In that case, I think it’s likely worthwhile to keep Cole set for the single elimination game, even if you risk losing home field.
This is the pregame win expectancy for last night’s start, one with Gerrit Cole on regular rest, on the road. That’s exactly the kind of situation we would expect in a potential away Wild Card game, and the Yankees have a 53.4 percent chance of winning. Typically, “home field advantage” equates to about a 54 percent win expectancy, so, by starting Gerrit Cole on regular rest, you virtually neutralize the opponent’s home field advantage right out of the gate.
Of course, the Yankees might also win that Sunday game, especially if a playoff-bound Tampa Bay Rays runs out a weaker lineup. In this situation, the Yankees cannot punt the lineup for game 162, but it’s probably worth keeping Cole in reserve, since he cancels out home field advantage, and brings with him that potential of absolute dominance — just ask the 2021 Astros.
Really, the whole rotation question is simple. If the Yankees need to win the game in order to play again in 2021, you start Gerrit Cole for that game, and worry about tomorrow’s game tomorrow. The Yankees have gotten too cute by half before when it comes to crucial games — paging a Happ, a Mr. J.A. Happ — but fortunately for them, this time around the decision is easy. Cole goes Friday, Cole goes Wednesday, and hopefully you’ve taken care of business before game 162, and he gets the ball for a Wild Card start wherever that happens.