Can the New York Yankees trust Gerrit Cole in the playoffs?

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Jul 17, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) takes a moment prior to the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees made history in late 2019 by agreeing to a colossal $324 million deal over 9 years. This was the largest contract ever for a pitcher at the time. It still remains the largest in total value. Only Trevor Bauer and Max Scherzer have surpassed the deal in annual average value. The Yankees sought to have Cole man the helm of their rotation for the remainder of his career by locking him down with this megadeal. Eternally in search of their 28th championship title, the Yankees thought that Cole would help them “bring it home.” However, this dream has yet to come to fruition. 

Cole was coming off arguably the two best seasons of his career with the Astros when the Yankees signed him in 2019. He was an All-Star in both of his campaigns in Houston and finished in the top-5 in Cy Young voting twice. He had established himself as nothing short of an ace. His contract in New York, although considered by some as an overpay, was rightfully deserved.

The “Cole Train” has continued his reign of success in the Bronx. He finished fourth in Cy-Young voting in 2020’s shortened COVID-19 season after posting an ERA of 2.84. The following season, he was the American League’s wins leader with 16 and finished second in Cy Young award voting. The trophy went to Toronto’s Robbie Ray in a tightly contested race that I admittedly thought that Cole was going to win. Despite this, Cole has clearly been a stud for the Yankees so far, and his lack of hardware to show for it should not devalue his successful tenure. 

The Yankees need the best version of Gerrit Cole:

Although he was an All-Star this season, Cole has faltered ever so slightly. His ERA has drooped down to 3.56. Although this mark is not bad per se, it is his lowest since 2017. In addition, his walk rate is slightly up and his strikeouts down. He has not been bad, but his 2022 performance is perhaps a far cry from the suffocating dominance of years past. Cole’s most glaring fault this season has been home runs. He is on track to give up the most home runs in a full season of his career. 

Cole has not been consistently giving up home runs. Instead, they have come in bunches. In early June against the Twins, Cole allowed 3 round-trippers to the first 3 batters he saw. On Wednesday against the Mariners, Cole gave up 6 runs in the first frame by way of 3 homers. One of these bombs even came from floundering Mariners prospect Jarred Kelenic, whose -2.8 WAR/162 over the past two years makes him one of the worst players in the majors. 

Personally, I don’t think that Cole’s flair for giving up long balls is a cause for panic. Aside from a couple of blown-up outings, he has been a sufficiently above-average starter thus far. However, there is definitely reason for concern. For every game that Cole has been blown out of, there have probably been three more that he has dominated in. The problem here is that every time he walks out to the mound, the Yankees run the risk of having Cole completely take them out of the game early. While these performances have been rare, they still do happen. The problem is that such a performance could occur in the postseason. 

With how much the Yankees are paying Cole, they would like him to be “the guy” every time he pitches. This is especially so in the playoffs. We saw such a blow-up out of Cole in last year’s American League Wild Card game. In only 2 innings, Cole surrendered 3 runs by way of 2 home runs. In a game in which the Yankees’ offense was mostly lifeless, this early allowance of runs took the Yankees out of the game and ended their season. Thankfully, the Yankees offense this season has been incredible and is capable of bailing Cole out even on his worst days. In addition, the odds of the Yankees playing in a winner-take-all Wild Card game are incredibly slim. At the time of writing, they are 70-36 with a 10.5 game lead on the AL East.

While the Bombers should be safe from a one-game playoff, Cole’s performance this season and in last year’s Wild Card Game causes one to wonder if he should be their go-to guy in an elimination game. The Yankees may be better suited by going with Nestor Cortes in this situation. The most runs that Cortes has allowed in an outing thus far this season is 4. Cole has surpassed that mark in five different instances. 

Cortes has a significantly higher WAR (2.9 vs 1.7) and lower ERA (2.53 vs 3.56) than Cole. It may be time to admit that Cortes has been better for the Yankees than Cole has in 2022. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing by any means. If anything, it’s a good problem to have.

Some may argue that Cole is being paid to be the Yankees’ ace every five games without fail. They may claim that to assume the second spot would be a failure. To that, I say that the Yankees are paying Cole his contract to win a World Series. It is not to ensure a good individual performance. If Cole acquiesces to Cortes and pitches, say, Game 2 of the World Series compared to Cortes starting Game 1, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Nobody will complain at the championship parade if Cole wasn’t the Yankees’ first option come November. My point is that the Yankees should do what they think is best to win, regardless of who is being paid what and who is necessary to get the job done. 

My ultimate stance is that Cole is an ace in his own right. However, he should not be the Yankees’ number one starter in the postseason. That role should fall upon Nestor Cortes. When it comes time, this strategy should hopefully yield number 28 for the Yankees. 

Follow this writer on Twitter: @ryan_ragan_

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