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The other franchise record watch: Gerrit Cole’s hunt for 249

With all eyes on the Judge, the Cole Train has been barreling towards a Yankees record that has stood for more than four decades.

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

Early in the season, as the Yankees stormed out to not only MLB’s best record, but to one of the best starts in baseball history, talk about 1998’s franchise record for most wins in a season (114) was in danger of falling. Although a cool July and a cold August have considerably dampened those hopes, that pace set the stage for what has become the biggest narrative of the summer: the chase for history.

Every Aaron Judge plate appearance has become must-watch television, as he stays ahead of Roger Maris’s 61-homer pace from the 1961 season in his quest to take the New York Yankees single-season record, which also happens to be the American League record. Although it’s extraordinarily unlikely, many fans have also kept a side eye on Barry Bonds’ Major League record of 73, as the slugger is not so far off the legend’s pace to make it unthinkable.

No. 99, however, is not the only member of the Yankees to be chasing a franchise record. Following his start on Tuesday night, Gerrit Cole’s league-leading 178 strikeouts have put him on track to challenge the Yankees’ single-season strikeout record of 248, set by Ron Guidry during his magical AL Cy Young campaign in 1978.

As can be seen here, Cole has remained ahead of Guidry’s pace the majority of the season, falling behind only when matched up with a stretch in which Guidry struck out 50 batters in four games; this run notably included Guidry’s famous 18-strikeout game, which is itself the franchise single-game record.

In fact, the Yankees’ current ace has been remarkably consistent, staying roughly one game’s worth of Ks ahead of the Louisiana Lightning. He has topped out at 12 K’s twice, including during his no-hit bid against the Rays on June 20th.

There’s one big problem, though. Thanks to clever manipulation of the rotation to skip the fifth starter every once in a while in an effort to chase down the Red Sox, Guidry managed to make 35 starts in 1978, including the Game 163 tiebreaker. Obviously, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight just yet, but based both on Cole’s personal history (he has never started more than 33 games in a season) and recent trends (no starters made more than 33 starts last year, and only 17 pitchers total from 2016-2021) it’s a fairly reasonable assumption that Cole will not match that number of outings.

It probably goes without saying, but health is obviously a factor, too. Just last year, Cole finished with 243 strikeouts, just five behind Guidry’s record, and he actually had 191 through his first 23 starts — 13 ahead of his mark through the same threshold this year. The problem was that Cole had an early-August stint on the COVID-IL that forced him to miss a few outings, and he also didn’t maintain his strikeout pace in September due to a hamstring injury affecting his play. This time around, the ace will need to stay off the shelf.

Despite these concerns, the record still remains well within reach for Cole, and that is simply because the right-hander is one of the game’s premier strikeout pitchers in a strikeout-heavy era. Guidry’s 23.5-percent K-rate in 1978 ranked third in baseball, behind just J.R. Richard and Nolan Ryan. Cole’s 33-percent K-rate in his first 65 games as a Yankee ranks second all-time, behind only Dellin Betances’s absurd 40.1-percent K-rate; he’s first among starters by quite a bit, with Luis Severino’s 27.1-percent K-rate coming in a distant second.

The difference in eras is jarring. Guidry struck out 10 or more batters in 8 of his 35 starts in 1978, but he also fanned just five or fewer in another dozen. Cole, meanwhile, has struck out 10 or more in 6 of his 23 starts, and he has accrued five or fewer strikeouts just four times. If he continues to rack up strikeouts at this pace — roughly 7.75 per start — then he should end the season with about 255 strikeouts, just enough for the franchise record.