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On Yankees starters, Super Bowl quarterbacks, and the commonalties between both

Both high-end talent and the underdog can shine on the biggest stage.

Royals vs Yankees John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The two quarterbacks in tonight’s Super Bowl have reached the pinnacle of their sport. However, the similarities between Patrick Mahomes and Brock Purdy end right there. It highlights the beauty of sports, that two vastly different athletic individuals can make it to the top of their game. When I think of Mahomes and Purdy, it reminds me of Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes.

Gerrit Cole was selected first overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. He was an elite prospect with top-end athletic traits destined to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. While Patrick Mahomes did not go first overall, his raw abilities and mega arm talent were enough for the Kansas City Chiefs to move up and select him 10th in the 2017 NFL Draft. If you were asked to create a Cy Young Award winner in a lab you would end up with Gerrit Cole. Cole is a powerful pitcher with a high-90s fastball and an explosive slider, with the durability and reliability that any franchise would dream of. Speaking of fastballs, Patrick Mahomes can make every throw on the football field, but he has become known for his deep-ball ability. Like Cole’s durability, Mahomes has only missed three starts due to injury since he became the full-time starter in 2018.

Both he and Cole attack their opponents — not afraid to go after batters/defenders to make a big play. They both exhibit a competitiveness that has elevated them from really good to superstars.

It has been well-documented that Mahomes is a tireless worker who has an incredible memory. Cole is a deep thinker of the game — consistently tinkering and analyzing his pitching — bringing the mental aspect of his repertoire to the mound with him. You don’t win MVP and Cy Young awards from talent alone. Now it cannot be ignored that Mahomes’ championship pedigree surpasses that of Cole — as the Yankees right-hander is still searching for the elusive World Series to add to the resume — but his 2.93 ERA over 17 postseason starts is nothing to scoff at. There are certainly levels to this, and I acknowledge that Mahomes has established himself already as one of the greatest QBs of all time, while Cole is looking to build on what could end up being a Hall of Fame career. No comparison across different sports is apples to apples, but they certainly carry themselves in similar ways.

Is it a stroke of fate that they also sound similar when they talk?

Nestor Cortes was selected 1,094th overall (36th round) in the 2013 MLB draft. The reality is that a player signing out of high school from that draft slot is not destined for Major League Baseball; in fact, that round and the 15 before it no longer exist. Nestor’s below-average fastball and overall stature were a concern, but the Yankees took a chance. That chance, however, was a very low one, as the incentive to keep a player of Cortes’ ilk around for a long period is low. Brock Purdy was the last pick in the 2022 NFL draft — “Mr. Irrelevant” as coined by the NFL, and for good reason considering players drafted that late, particularly at quarterback, don’t become starters in the NFL. Purdy’s small arms, overall build, and lack of elite arm talent are what landed him so low on draft boards.

Super Bowl Opening Night Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

The path for Cortes was not streamlined: selected in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft by the Orioles, then returned to the Yankees in 2018, only to be traded to the Mariners in 2019 before being cut and signed again by the Yankees in 2021. A call-up in May of 2021 resulted in a few successful appearances out of the bullpen. The Yankees had multiple pitchers go down with injuries in July, opening the door for Nestor, who made 14 starts and pitched to a 2.90 ERA.

While Brock Purdy’s track to become the 49ers’ starter didn’t take as many winding turns as Nestor’s, he too seized an opportunity when given the chance. Purdy started training camp in 2022 as the fourth quarterback on the depth chart, which likely meant being cut or placed on the practice squad. However, the 49ers’ starter, Trey Lance, went down with an injury. Then backup, and proven veteran, Jimmy Garoppolo went down with an injury. Sensing a theme here? Brock Purdy went on to win seven straight games as a starter, including a pair of playoff victories before getting hurt in the NFC title game.

Both athletes were not a flash in the pan. Cortes spent the 2022 season proving any doubters wrong, to the tune of a 2.44 ERA over 28 starts. He was named an All-Star and finished Top 10 in Cy Young Voting. Purdy spent this season, his first as a full-time starter, leading his team to a Super Bowl appearance and finishing in the Top 5 in MVP voting.

For athletes like Nestor Cortes and Brock Purdy, one chance may be all you get. Both players took advantage of their one chance and stuck, but how? Based on scouting reports, they were lacking in some way. For Nestor, he makes up for his lack of high-end fastball by keeping hitters off balance. I think batters are surprised by his ability to challenge them with his on-surface average arsenal of pitches, and his funky delivery and arm slots continuously disrupt timing. There is a rhythm to his starts when he is on a roll. It is a classic case of playing to your strengths and not deviating from what makes you great. Purdy makes up for his deficiencies by trusting the system around him and playing within himself. His play is predicated on timing, and accuracy, with a hint of creativity. They are both fearless — willing to take chances with high-risk plays — but not often enough to make them a liability.

The concern with non-prototypical athletes is durability. Purdy needed surgery to repair a torn UCL at the end of last season and Cortes missed much of 2023 with shoulder issues. Will availability be a concern long term?

These comparisons across sports can be difficult. The point that I wanted to make is that athletes don’t have to fit a certain mold, which may be obvious, but also important to highlight. We can appreciate both expected superstars and underdogs who become great players. Whether it is on a baseball diamond this season or in tonight’s Super Bowl, let’s take a moment to appreciate the hard work and journey that these athletes have taken to reach this point. Some were expected to be here, while others were not. That is what makes sports great.