When the start of the 2020 season commenced in late July, the New York Yankees entered as the strong favorites to not only win their division but at the very least, make yet another World Series appearance. At the time, this was understandably so; the Yankees reemerged over the last three years as the mighty franchise that they’re notoriously known for being, reaching 100 wins in back-to-back seasons and doing so with utter power and dominance. Barring an incredible amount of hype as is, this newly stamped status was elevated to an even higher level when the Yankees decided to pull out a 9-year, $324 million-dollar contract to sign superstar ace, Gerrit Cole in the typical, grandiose Yankees style. When your entire offseason consists of one massive signing, that alone should tell you just how strong of a team the Yankees already have across their entire roster.
However, fast forward to the end of September and all of a sudden, the Yankees are sitting in 2nd place in their division with a solid 32-26 record to show for (ESPN). After starting their first 11 games with a 9-2 record, the Yankees ended up losing 15 out of the 20 games they played from August 18th to September 8th, before they finally beat the Toronto Blue Jays on September 9th to end their concerning, downward spiral (ESPN). Although there are a handful of factors that have played into this poor showing from a team that was destined to conquer this season, injuries and pitching are by far the two biggest causes for the rickety year the Yankees have been experiencing. After breaking a new record last year, injuries are nothing new for the Yankees, especially with the depth they carry that has allowed for them to stay afloat. But when it comes to pitching, the Yankees were finally “supposed” to have a sense of stability, security, and resiliency with their starting rotation, particularly after signing Cole. And for a 60-game season, that’s not been the case.
Naturally, as is expected with being one of the most revered pitchers in the league, Cole has been at the forefront of the blame for the Yankees starting pitching woes, particularly over the month of August. With various fans and critics honing in on Cole’s home run issue (currently tied in 2nd with 14 HRs allowed this season), a sense of doubt has crept into the air regarding the Yankees newly signed star, leaving behind a thin layer of skepticism in its wake (ESPN). As the postseason draws nearer with only a couple of games left of the regular season, the dawning question that is still hovering with uncertainty, is just how concerned should the Yankees feel regarding their new, stud ace moving forward? Although it’s been a rather quick and unusual 60-game season, are the small yet minimal red flags worth second-guessing with a pitcher that is as prominent as Cole has proven to be?
Believe it or not, the answer is quite simple; this is a complete overreaction and the Yankees should not be concerned at all with their new face of their starting rotation, and for a handful of reasons. Even with his struggle to limit home runs, Cole is everything the Yankees have been looking for and has delivered a remarkable year despite the fact that his debut season was only 60 games long. In addition, conceding home runs doesn’t really play much of a significant factor when determining the success of a pitcher’s yearly performance. In fact, if you look at the past few seasons, prominent CY Young Award Winners have cracked the Top 10 in HRs allowed, including both Justin Verlander who placed in 3rd last year with 36 and Max Scherzer who landed in 6th with 31 in 2016 (ESPN). To put it in simple terms, earned runs are earned runs, and the main goal as a pitcher, is to limit the total amount period, whether it’s through home runs, triples, doubles, singles, or walks.
With that said, the main concern that arises from accumulating home runs is lack of precision and control, which Cole did not have an easy time with during the month of August. In the 6 games he started, Cole had a 4.19 ERA, allowed a total of 34 hits with 16 ERs, and conceded 10 of his 14 HRs in that month alone (ESPN). For a guy like Cole, these numbers certainly pop out and it’s understandable as to why skeptics may be concerned as a result. But an influential factor that determines greatness is overcoming significant plunges like these, and Cole has been flat out deadly over the month of September, posting a 1.00 ERA with an OBA of .147 along with 34 strikeouts and only 2 HRs in 4 starts.
The statistical reality surrounding Cole that is important to grasp, is that his ability to improve and overcome adversity is nothing new. After an impressive first two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cole really hit his stride in 2015 with breakout numbers, finishing the season with a 19-8 record, a 2.60 ERA, and a total of 202 strikeouts, which was his career-high at the time (ESPN). Following such an incredible All-Star performance in 2015, the following two seasons in 2016 and 2017 made the whole league question if this man was a one-time wonder. Spending a good chunk of his 2016 season on the IL due to a right triceps muscle strain where he only logged in 21 starts and allowed a rough OBA of .289, 2017 was even worse (ESPN). Leading the National League with 33 starts, Cole posted frightful career highs with 31 HRs, a 4.26 ERA, 340 total base hits, and a total of 96 earned runs (ESPN). But as soon as he left for Houston, that utterly changed, and frankly, is why Cole has received so much scrutiny this season. After having a peak year with the Astros where he had 20 wins, a mean 2.50 ERA, and led the league in strikeouts with 326 on the year (beating out Verlander, Jacob deGrom, and Shane Bieber mind you), it’s unfair to expect a repeat performance or even a very similar one the year after, even if there was a full 162 game season. Just take a look at guys like Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich and Pete Alonso for example, who all came off monstrous seasons in 2019; none of them have produced a comparably similar performance or have made as big of an impact, and that’s expected, particularly with a shortened season. And considering the additional adversity of joining a new team in the biggest market in baseball, Cole has truly risen to the occasion and has had an excellent season.
After recently turning 30, Cole is in the prime of his career and has plenty of time left in the league to assert his dominance and lead the Yankees to a World Series Title, just like he did for Houston. But as that looming goal continues to bear down over the Bronx Bombers, it’s vital to remember that transitions can take time, even for the best of the best. But if Cole has proven anything, from the time he came into the league with the Pirates, to joining the Astros in 2018, to then signing with the Yankees earlier this year, is that transitions are his strong suit and he has demonstrated that with his growth and development, especially over these last three seasons. With the postseason nearing closer and closer, Cole looks as ready as he’s ever been; and as we’ve seen before, he truly brings out his best when it matters most.