Cole still has something to prove entering fourth season with Yankees
NEW YORK — It’s been two full years plus a COVID season since Gerrit Cole joined the Yankees, and his most memorable exploits were getting blasted at the 2021 wildcard game in Boston and the infamous press conference where he froze like a deer in the headlights when asked about his use of sticky stuff.
To kill any nonsense from the peanut gallery, he’s still been very good. In fact, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the league. Since signing his colossal contract with the Yankees, Cole ranks second among qualified pitchers in strikeout rate, fourth in innings pitched, fifth in WHIP and ninth in Wins Above Replacement. He’s been an AllStar in each of his Yankee seasons where the exhibition wasn’t canceled by the pandemic and has finished in the top 10 of Cy Young voting in all three years.
Anyone trying to hot take their way into the opinion that Cole has been bad is flatly incorrect.
But it does feel like he’s still waiting to deliver a true Yankee Moment, particularly one in front of his home crowd. His entire first year with the team was played in empty stadiums, which was beyond his control. But then Cole’s three-hit, complete game shutout of the Astros in 2021 — probably his finest moment in a Yankee uniform — came on the road. So did his 15-strikeout masterpiece against the Angels later that year. Last season, his best start
at Yankee Stadium was either a seven-inning blanking of the offensively deficient Cincinnati Reds or his June 3 takedown of the Detroit Tigers, who weren’t exactly a juggernaut either.
While he was sensational in his two starts against Cleveland in last year’s Division Series, even that was partially overshadowed by Josh Naylor going yard against him and declaring that Cole was his “little f—ing son” in one of the unforgettable highlights from the 2022 postseason. If Cole does have one undeniable playoff moment, it was his swinging strikeout and emphatic fist pump to end the seventh inning of Game 4 in Cleveland, which was an elimination game for the Yankees.
Cole reached back and fired three straight fastballs to end the Guardians’ threat and put a cap on his outing, but that assertive moment came against Will Brennan, who had played in just 11 MLB games prior to the postseason. It was a great showcase of Cole’s ability to power clean the weight of Yankee expectations on a big stage, it just so happened to be against a career minor leaguer trying to punch severely above his weight class.
But ask any casual fan to list some things they remember from that series, and Naylor’s antics will surely come up before Cole holding the Guardians to just three runs in his 131⁄3 combined innings of work, which led to two Yankee wins. In the next
round, one of the storylines to emerge from the Yankee clubhouse was Cole being stunned by his sixth-inning removal from Game 3, leading directly to the sac fly and RBI single off Lou Trivino that essentially clinched the series for Houston.
That is the last memory of Cole heading into 2023, a year where he finds himself with a lot to prove. It is certainly not out of the question at all for newlyacquired lefty Carlos Rodon to outpitch Cole and become the de facto ace of the staff. When the Yankees agreed to give Cole $324 million, they definitely did not envision that going to a No. 2 starter.
But Rodon was better than Cole by several metrics last year, and by some (WAR, ERA, home run to fly ball ratio, ERA+) the scales tip significantly in Rodon’s favor. Perhaps the new kid on the block will light a fire under Cole — who again, has still been an excellent pitcher for his entire Yankee tenure — but needs some October heroics to endear himself to the fans the way Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia and even El Duque did.
Nobody understands the pressure he’s facing more than Cole himself. Another ringless year in the Bronx will only increase the doubters whining about Cole being overpaid, only provide more material for the naysayers to poke holes in his resume.
“I think it’s the hardest job in the league,” Cole told The Athletic during last year’s postseason run. “I don’t think there’s a harder place to be the ace. I think it’s the most hunted job in the league and I think it comes with the most weight.”
Cole has shown that he can handle the World Series spotlight. In 2019, he brought the Astros to the doorstep of a championship, limiting the Nationals to three hits and one run in a victory that left Houston one win away from a second title in three years. The Astros went on to lose the final two games of that series and Cole hasn’t been that deep into the postseason since, robbing him of one of the few things that has eluded him in his decorated career. He’s never won a Cy Young or a championship, and there is nothing he would like more than to knock both of those out in 2023.
If he does, it’d be hard to argue that he has anything left to prove.