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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #48 Gerrit Cole

Our first current Yankee is riding high off his first Cy Young.

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New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Name: Gerrit Allen Cole
Position: Pitcher
Born: September 8, 1990 (Newport Beach, CA)
Yankee Years: 2020-present
Primary number: 45
Yankee statistics: 108 G, 664.0 IP, 51-23, 3.08 ERA, 136 ERA+, 816 K, 17.8 rWAR, 15.1 fWAR

Biography

One of the advantages of profiling a current Yankee is that I can be a little more concise with certain aspects of his biography, and instead delve deep into just what kind of a pitcher Gerrit Cole is. For four years now he’s taken the ball every five days, and doesn’t just give the Yankees a chance to win but is often the biggest reason why they do. On top of that, he’s one of the few true 200-inning workhorses left in the game, so as fans there’s a lot of time for the YES or ESPN crew to tell us about Gerrit Cole the person.

Perhaps no player this century has been pursued as doggedly by general manager Brian Cashman as Cole. One can reflect on how the splashiest trades have been made only when the market has been tipped in the Yankees’ favor — A-Rod being acquired only after the Rangers/Red Sox deal fell through, while Giancarlo Stanton was available at a relative discount after vetoing trades to the Cardinals and Giants.

Cashman tried three separate times to land Cole, first as a first-round pick out of high school only for the then-UCLA commit to don the Bruins’ jersey. The better part of a decade later, with Cole on the trade market, Cashman was unwilling to part with a package of prospects and saw the righty put up some of the best pitching performances of this generation with the rival Astros. Finally, after hitting the market coming off a World Series loss, Gerrit Cole signed with the Yanks in a move that felt both surreal, and inevitable. All he’s done since then is be pretty much the best pitcher in the American League, and at least by rWAR, already the 27th-best pitcher in franchise history.

The Blue Chip

If there were a kit you could order, a “just add water” Ace in a Box, it might look a lot like Gerrit Cole. In the rotation of the Orange Lutheran High School’s varsity squad as a junior, Cole was touching 96 mph at showcases and inter-school play, leading to a dominant stretch of 45 scoreless innings.

One of the best high school prospects in the country, Cole nevertheless had a drive for a college education. The son of an MD, and with access to the better prep school scenes in Southern California, Cole’s inherent curiosity would lend well to the finest public education system in the world. Indeed, that scholarly approach, refusing to even negotiate with the Yankees despite being a first-round pick in the 2008 MLB Draft, would become a hallmark of Cole’s pitching career, as he blends a cerebral approach with natural talents.

Cole had a soft spot for the Yankees, as he grew up as a fan and even attended the 2001 World Series in Arizona, but he held firm. New York offered over slot value, a $4 million signing bonus, but the Friday night starter’s job at Jackie Robinson Stadium was worth more than that to Gerrit.* By sophomore year, Cole and rotationmate Trevor Bauer were duking it out for the title of best pitcher in the nation, while the Bruins were en route to a second-place finish in the College World Series.

*UCLA would be even better for Cole personally, as it was there that he met his wife, Amy. She was on the softball team and her brother, Brandon Crawford, had just been drafted from the same school.

Baseball - NCAA - Gerrit Cole Photo by Patrick Green/ Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

Now, that relationship with Bauer...

One thing that’s become clear with Cole is that he believes in doing things his way, from conditioning to the proper start time of ballgames. Anyone who knows anything about Trevor Bauer knows he also does things his way, albeit a much more unconventional style than Cole. Cole is the kind of pitcher that has existed throughout baseball history, a throughline can be drawn from Cy Young to Lefty Grove to Bob Feller to Tom Seaver to Randy Johnson to Cole. Bauer is one of those one-offs that could only exist in the exact time and context he did. That foundational divide brewed three years of tension, occasional direct confrontations, and a million miles of internet speculation about whether those two could stand to be on the same All-Star team.

I don’t care for Trevor Bauer, but make note of this ... rather strong-willed bit of Cole’s personality. Like his insistence on the college route to begin with, this mentality has helped to both propel Cole to the height of the sport and led to more than one spot of personal or professional embarrassment.

Right Pitcher, Wrong Place

At first glance, being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates at a time the organization was turning heads because of a pitching philosophy would seem to be a good thing. The first overall pick of the 2011 draft, Cole was joining a franchise where Ray Searage’s sinker-heavy approach was resurrecting the careers of A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton, among others.

Once again that strong will reared its head, as Cole delayed signing with the Pirates until 15 minutes before MLB’s imposed deadline, too late in the year to pitch in A-ball. So great was the righty’s pedigree though that Cole’s first taste of pro ball came in the Arizona Fall League, usually reserved for the game’s best and brightest prospects.

Cole was immediately one of the most well-regarded young arms in baseball and never ranked below 12th on a preseason Top 100 list. He made it to Triple-A Indianapolis by the end of his first full professional season in 2012, and after 12 starts in 2013, Pittsburgh decided that he was ready. Cole debuted on June 11th with 6.1 innings, allowing just two runs to the defending World Series champion Giants, even knocking an RBI hit off Tim Lincecum for good measure.

Cole posted a 3.22 ERA and 2.91 FIP across 19 starts during his rookie campaign. With NL MVP Andrew McCutchen leading the way, the Pirates snapped their miserable streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons and made the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Cole made his postseason debut in NLDS Game 2 with six fantastic frames of two-hit, one-run ball in enemy territory in St. Louis.

Cole’s win tied the series with the Cardinals, and it would return to Busch Stadium for the decisive Game 5. The rookie simply lost to a better, more experienced arm in Adam Wainwright, who went the distance in a 6-1 St. Louis victory that only got out of hand long after Cole’s departure. He was steady as a sophomore in 2014 and the Bucs made it back to the postseason, but Cole didn’t get a chance to pitch. Edinson Volquez got bombed while Madison Bumgarner dominated in a Wild Card Game loss to the Giants.

Of course Cole’s time in Pittsburgh is thought of as an incomplete puzzle, a photo that should be a gallery piece but is just a tad out of focus. Searage’s contact-management approach didn’t gel with Cole’s masterful fastball-slider combination, and although there was nothing really wrong with Gerrit’s first two seasons — aside from a balky shoulder that cost him time both years — it just felt like he had more to offer.

Then came 2015, and the baseball world got to see what the blue-chip starter could really do. Cole’s first 200-inning campaign saw him post five wins by fWAR, and after a stellar outing on May 22nd, found himself in Cy Young contention. An 8.1 inning, 10 strikeout, shutout performance against the Mets turned the eyes of the baseball world toward Cole, who would make the All-Star team for the first time.

As the excellent season rolled on and the 98-win Pirates prepared for their third consecutive Wild Card appearance, Cole was designated the guy in Pittsburgh. He would be the ace tasked with sending them to the Division Series as the ascendant Cubs came to town.

It could have gone better. A couple pitches were left out over the plate against an up-and-coming lineup, and in one game, that can be all it takes. Cole still ended up fourth in NL Cy Young voting, the high-water mark of his time in Pittsburgh.

By 2017, the split between Cole and Searage was becoming even more stark as the Pirates sagged back under .500. After three years of Cole increasing his sinker, daring hitters to put the ball in play even at the cost of his second-best pitch, that slider we’re all so familiar with, the ace started to go his own way.

Searage’s magic was starting to wear off around baseball by this point, as he would last just two more seasons while the dominant pitching philosophy shifted to rising fastballs up in the zone. Enter the Houston Astros, fresh off a World Series win and looking to build a dynasty deep in the heart of Texas.

The Rival

The Yankees had made a sizable splash in December 2017, landing Stanton at a below-market rate as the floundering Marlins struggled with direction. Perhaps even more than the Astros, New York needed one more big move to set themselves apart in a crowded American League playoff pool, and with Pittsburgh openly fielding offers on a guy that Cashman always wanted anyway, it was clear that the two ALCS participants were the co-favorites to land Cole.

Hedging their bets, the Yankees were unwilling to part with Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andújar, Justus Sheffield, and Estevan Florial, and refusing to package Chance Adams and Clint Frazier together. We’ll get into Cole’s performance with the Astros, but suffice to say Cole put up 13.4 fWAR in two seasons in Houston, and to date the Yankees have managed just 15.8 fWAR out of those seven players combined — all but two wins coming from Gleyber.

Now, as Michael Kay will tell us we can’t rely on the fallacy of the predetermined outcome. It’s impossible to say if Cole would have been as good in the Bronx as he was in Houston, or if the prospects sent would have been as dismal in Pittsburgh as they were in pinstripes. But on net, if you had held back Gleyber and sent six other guys, you would have gained 11.4 wins in two seasons. When people say “Don’t gut the farm!” they really should be saying “There are 1-2 guys in the system who need to be kept and everyone else is at best a marginal upgrade, so who cares?”

Instead, the Astros landed their man, sending a four-pack of prospects back to the Pirates. Outside of the glory of Colin Moran’s red beard, the only real positive came from Joe Musgrove — another talented pitcher who Pittsburgh couldn’t fully develop and was ultimately flipped for prospects (one of whom was future All-Star closer David Bednar).

Cole was now joining a team on the cutting-edge of analytics, headed by two pitching gurus, coach Brent Strom and ace Justin Verlander. It was a perfect learning environment for the as-yet still imperfect budding ace. The Astros prioritized the hard, rising fastball that Cole had been sporting since before he was a legal adult.

You can see how Cole’s fastball usage went from much more east-west to north-south once he was flipped to Houston, and as designed, those fastballs began to sneak above the swing plane of most hitters. Cole’s strikeout rate jumped 11 points from his final year in Pittsburgh, and the full impact of his arm became apparent.

I think the Astros just miss the cut on being defined as a dynasty, though not for lack of trying. Bounced out of the ALCS by an all-time great Red Sox team in 2018, they returned loaded for bear in 2019, and Cole had one of the most dominant pitching seasons in recent memory.

Cole was one K away from icing 40 percent of all batters he faced across 212.1 innings. His 39.9 percent is the highest rate among qualified starters in any 162-game season ever. His 34-percent K-BB%, my personal favorite pitching stat, is also the highest ever. He won the ERA title, led the league in FIP and strikeouts, and was barely edged out by his teammate Verlander in one of the closest votes ever for the AL Cy Young.

And boy, that postseason run.

Cole spun a 1.72 ERA in 36.2 innings, striking out more than a third of the men he faced. He did face the Yankees in the ALCS, and New York actually wore him out a bit, working him for five walks in seven innings — tied for the most free passes Cole would allow in any outing all year.

Cole lost his World Series debut in the Game 1 opener against the Nationals, but he rebounded in emphatic fashion with the Fall Classic knotted at two games apiece. The righty gave the Astros a 3-2 edge heading back to Houston, as he fired seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball, striking out nine in the 7-1 win.

Cole ended the year sitting in the bullpen, waiting to be used in relief in one of the best World Series of a generation. A.J. Hinch didn’t go to him though, letting a quintet of relievers drop the seventh and deciding game instead. While the Nationals were still popping champagne bottles, Cole gave a rather clipped postgame interview, notably swapping out his Astros cap for a Boras Corporation one.

Now, whether Cole was just embracing his role as an ace-for-hire or there were deeper tensions between him and the Astros — just weeks before a sign-stealing scandal would rip through the sport — only he himself knows, but this was seen widely as recognition that the bidding for his services was open.

Enemies to Lovers

Allowed to pursue Cole for the third time, Brian Cashman orchestrated a full-court press once free agency officially opened.

Andy Pettitte, Cole’s favorite pitcher growing up, was included in the pitch at the Winter Meetings along with an in-depth briefing of the team’s analytic system. The Angels and Dodgers were also serious bidders, luring Cole back to SoCal, but it’s hard to compete with both the most guaranteed money and childhood nostalgia together:

MLB: New York Yankees-Gerrit Cole Press Conference Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

Cole officially became a Yankee on December 18, 2019, coming to terms on a nine-year, $324 million deal that was the most ever guaranteed to a pitcher.

The biggest free agent signing in a decade was one of the brightest points of this era of Yankee baseball, but Cole’s actual debut was delayed and more than a bit strange. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the start of the 2020 season back to July 23rd, with Cole facing off against Max Scherzer and his World Series opponents, the Nationals.

In what should have been the marquee opening to the season and a new chapter in Cole’s career was instead an eerily silent six-inning performance that felt more like a sim game than the beginning of a new era. That entire season was bizarre, down to a Dodgers World Series title immediately overshadowed by Justin Turner testing positive for COVID in the middle of the deciding game. Cole fared well in his first season in the Bronx, finishing fourth in Cy Young voting with a 2.84 ERA and 0.959 WHIP across 12 starts.

The Yankees were eliminated by the Rays in the ALDS that year, but Cole could not be faulted. He had won his Game 1 start in the Wild Card Series against Cleveland, dominating with 13 strikeouts in 7 innings, and then beat Tampa Bay in the Division Series opener with six frames of three-run ball. Tasked with saving the season on three days’ rest in Game 5, the only hit Cole allowed in 5.1 innings was a solo shot by Austin Meadows. The offense didn’t really show up though, so it came down to Aroldis Chapman and you know the rest.

2021 was a slog for Yankee fans, with Gerrit as a bright, bright spot of hope. His July 10th outing at Houston was his first real “earn your pinstripes” moment, throwing a dazzling complete-game shutout in Houston with 12 K’s, and perhaps most famously echoing Hall of Famer Mike Mussina. Manager Aaron Boone visited the mound in the final frame only to be barked back to the dugout by an ace determined to finish his start, no small task given a pitch count near 130 and the identity of the fearsome batter at the plate:

For the second time in his career, you could argue that Gerrit Cole was the Cy Young runner-up in a year where he was the league’s best starter. This time, the ace came up second to Jays lefty Robbie Ray, and his season ended in disappointment as the club sleepwalked through a Wild Card loss to the Red Sox. Cole had tweaked his hamstring in a mid-September start against Toronto and just wasn’t the same guy he’d been for most of 2021 while pitching through it at Fenway Park.

When your team ostensibly believes that the goal is championships, it’s going to undercut how much individual accomplishments get attention. I feel in some ways we’ve already forgotten how historic Aaron Judge’s 2022 season was, where he ran away with the AL MVP. But the Yankees barely scraped past Cleveland in the ALDS before being swept by those old Astros in the Championship Series. They wouldn’t have made it even that far if Cole hadn’t thoroughly dominated the Guardians across two wins, including a Game 4 triumph in Cleveland that saved the season.

Gerrit Cole now has his Cy Young Award. After a deeply, deeply weird 2022 where his command in the zone flattened — and his fastball was correspondingly crushed to the tune of an AL-high 33 homers — there was very real criticism that Cole was overpaid, too much a user of nebulous sticky stuff, and the Yankees were in trouble in the long run. As true a competitor as there is, Cole worked his way into a new style of pitching; moving his fastball towards the shadow and edge zones rather than rising above swing planes, and focusing on keeping the ball in the park.

2023 was the first time Cole struck out fewer than 30 percent of batters faced, but he gave up the second-fewest home runs of any 162-game season of his career. The rallying cry all of 2022 was that if he could just control the long ball he’d sail to a Cy Young, and that’s exactly what he did. Even with that change in approach, he could still dominate, throwing two complete-game shutouts and closing the book on his Cy Young case with 17 combined innings in back-to-back starts against the Blue Jays, allowing a single run on four hits.

Your Favorite Pitcher’s Favorite Pitcher

If we’re all still here in a decade, and we’re redoing this list again, there will be at least another section, maybe more, on the final years of Gerrit Cole’s career. He’ll have made over $400 million in salary by the time his career is over, so he may not need to stick around the game for the paycheque. It’s easy to see him slotting in as that Special Advisor role the Yankees love, hanging around spring training or perhaps being used, as Pettitte was, to help lure free agents.

We don’t know if he’ll have a World Series ring. When the Yankees began their second pursuit of Cole, after that 2017 season that had us all thinking the Yankees had all the potential in the world, we all felt like a title run was inevitable. The team had too much young talent and too much ability to add payroll not to get at least one more ring.

We’re still waiting.

At press time, even with the addition of former World Series foe Juan Soto, and the perennial greatness of Cole and Judge, you can make an argument the Yankees aren’t even the best team in the AL East. Despite all that, despite the fact that the organization has let the fanbase down from the first time the words “Baby Bombers” were printed, I don’t know how you could be let down by Gerrit Cole.

He wrapped himself in a cloak of pinstripes, has been accountable after every bad start and a joy to watch in every great one. If you’re an old-school fan who wants a starter to be a starter, nobody has thrown more innings since Gerrit Cole signed with the Yankees, and only Dylan Cease has made more starts (one more start in fact). If you’re a younger fan, maybe his computational approach to the game appeals to you, or maybe you just like that he can be extremely serious while also being kind of a weird little guy.

Cole has only spent four seasons with the Yankees, one of which wasn’t even a full, “normal” year. He’s been everything Yankee fans could have hoped for in that time, the blue-chip prospect the team’s targeted for almost 15 years. He takes the ball every fifth day and has become appointment viewing. As long as that golden right arm holds up, the next time we run this series, you can bet he’ll be more than a few slots higher.

If he finally captures that elusive world championship, even more so.

Staff rank: 46
Community rank: 34
Stats rank: 82
2013 rank: N/A

References

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

Haislop, Tadd & Joe Rivera. “Gerrit Cole contract details: How the Yankees landed the ace pitcher in free agencyThe Sporting News, 23 July 2020.

Lindbergh, Ben and Travis Sawchik. The MVP Machine. New York: Basic Books, 2019.

Nesbitt, Stephen J. “‘Why do those two clash?’ Inside the legendary Gerrit Cole-Trevor Bauer rivalry at UCLA,” The Athletic, 14 June 2021.

Polishuk, Mark. “More Reaction & Fallout to the Gerrit Cole Trade,” MLB Trade Rumors, 14 Jan. 2018.

Sawchik, Travis. “Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole diversifies pitch-mix portfolio,” Trib Total Media, 12 Mar. 2014.

Previously on the Top 100

49. Herb Pennock
Full list to date