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Nestor Cortes should start ALDS Game 1 over Gerrit Cole

The left-hander has dominated down the stretch while his co-ace has not.

MLB: New York Yankees at Oakland Athletics Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Something kept popping into my mind as Nestor Cortes toyed with the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday — particularly each time he struck out one of the game’s top prospects, getting Gunner Henderson and Adley Rutschman a combined five times: this is the guy the Yankees should lean on in October. The Yankees have already said that Gerrit Cole gets the ball for Game 1 of the ALDS, but I actually think that’s a mistake. I yearn for simplicity — open the postseason with your best pitcher on the mound, and in the second half, Nestor Cortes has been the Yankees’ best pitcher.

I defend Gerrit Cole a lot, but the only thing he’s done better than Nestor over the past three months is strike more batters out. Their walk rates are nearly identical, Cole’s given up five times as many home runs, and Cortes’ ERA is two full runs lower, with his FIP a run and a half lower. That’s your No. 1 guy.

I wrote earlier this summer about Gerrit Cole’s risk of road pizza, those odds that he completely blows up in any given start, the kind of start that’s annoying-to-harmful in July or August, but outright disastrous in October. Even if he doesn’t completely implode, like his starts against the Mariners or Twins this year, his performance hasn’t inspired the confidence that we’d expect from a guy with his track record.

Cole’s start last Friday against the Red Sox is a perfect example. Tommy Pham leads off the game with a home run, and that sucks, but its navigable. Solo home runs, especially just one solo home run, won’t kill you — see Justin Verlander, 2019. Cole struck out eight Sox in that outing, the Yankees built a lead, and then ...

Now, the Yankees went on to win that game, but the Red Sox stink, and the Mariners or Guardians or Blue Jays or Rays don’t. Giving up a backbreaker like that, against a team a whole lot better than the Sox, puts you behind the eight ball immediately in a postseason series.

Everyone has bad days, but if we use the same cutoff for “blowing up” that I used back in August, a FanGraphs GameScore below 40, Cortes has blown up four times this season, and has six below-average starts all year, his last one coming all the way back in July. Cole has only blown up five times, once in September, but 11 total below average starts with three coming in the season’s final month is why we’re suffering this crisis of confidence.

The predominant counterargument when I floated this on Twitter was that giving Cortes the ball for the second game of the ALDS sets him up to go in Game 5. Fair point, but putting the better starter in the first game reduces the chance that you’ll play a fifth anyway. There’s so much more downside risk in a Cole start that you’d be piecing the rest of your plan together on the fly.

This isn’t even a high-floor versus high-ceiling argument; Cortes gives you both. He doesn’t have that downside risk that Cole’s shown this year, but his ceiling is seemingly sky high as well. Yes, Saturday’s start was the best of his season, but he’s had eight innings of one-run ball against Tampa, and a combined 12 innings with three earned runs against Cleveland. Cortes has demonstrated the ability to completely take over a game, and even when he’s off, he’s better than Cole’s off.

It’s crazy to think that the guy with a $324 million contract shouldn’t be the Game 1 starter for the New York Yankees, but are we concerned with contracts or championships? Nestor Cortes is the team’s best pitcher, give him the ball for Game 1 and work out the rest of the rotation from there.