Gerrit Cole’s top priority is postseason baseball even with Cy Young Award within his reach

Gerrit Cole is one of the frontrunners for the AL Cy Young Award.|Art or Photo Credit: AP

New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole is considered one of the frontrunners to win this year’s American League Cy Young Award. The race for the prestigious pitching honor will come down to Cole and tough competition from Robbie Ray of the Toronto Blue Jays and Lance Lynn of the Chicago White Sox. Cole and Ray will play pivotal roles for their ball clubs as both try to secure wild card berths with the White Sox already destined to win the American League Central division title. The right-handed ace has demonstrated tremendous resilience in quickly bouncing back from a recent hamstring tightness issue. He is determined to lead the Yankees into the postseason while achieving a long overdue personal goal.

Dominance has defined Cole’s brief tenure with the Yankees, especially this season. According to MLB Stats, Cole is the fastest Yankees pitcher to 200 strikeouts in a season as this feat was accomplished over 24 starts. He is in striking distance of Ron Guidry’s franchise record 248 strikeouts in a single season (1978). At the outset of September, Cole was mesmerizing with a 15-strikeout performance over seven innings against the Los Angeles Angels. He induced an impressive 32 swinging strikes and according to Baseball Savant, Cole is only the third pitcher this season to have at least 30 swinging strikes in a ball game.

Data collected using Baseball-Reference’s Stathead tool states that Cole has struck out at least 13 batters in a ball game while not allowing a base on ball five times during the regular season in his career. Two of these occasions have occurred this season. Cole is the first Yankees pitcher to have five ball games with at least 12 strikeouts in a season. Al Downing (1963) previously held the distinction with four. Cole has also tied David Cone (1998) for the franchise lead with nine multiple-digit strikeout performances in a season.

Presently, Cole is either first or second in several statistical categories for American League pitchers with his primary opponent being Ray of the Blue Jays. Luckily, Cole will not have to worry when it comes to debates regarding how traditional and advanced statistics will factor into the decision-making process for voters. His excellence is properly demonstrated whether you are looking at victories or fielding independent pitching (FIP). Achieving success in both traditional and advanced statistics bodes well for Cole’s candidacy, but there is far more to him than just strikeouts and regularly flirting with triple-digit four-seam fastballs.

An indispensable asset for the Yankees, Cole’s fortitude coupled with a razor-sharp mind make him an imposing adversary on the mound. In the highest of compliments, Cole embodies several endearing characteristics of three successful Yankees pitchers: David Cone, Ron Guidry and Mike Mussina. Like Cone and Mussina, Cole blends intensity and intelligence with a devout commitment towards attaining perfection. He analyzes every pitch with a meticulous attention to detail. Cole and Guidry are kindred spirits bonded by overpowering fastballs and aggressively attacking the strike zone much to the dismay of hitters.

One of the keys to Cole’s success this season is the enhanced presence of the slider in his pitching repertoire. While he has always thrown the pitch throughout his major league career, it appears as if the slider has become far more prominent due to its effectiveness. According to Baseball Savant, hitters have posted a .163 batting average on the season against Cole’s slider which he has thrown at an average velocity of 88.4 miles per hour. A pitch predominantly used against right-handed batters by Cole, the slider is in stark contrast in terms of velocity and movement off his four-seam fastball which boasts an average velocity of 97.7 miles per hour.

Cole’s collaboration with catcher Kyle Higashioka has been a winning combination for the Yankees. Higashioka has caught 145.1 innings over 24 of Cole’s 27 starts this season. Besides the 196 strikeouts, opponents have only produced a .591 on-base plus slugging (OPS) against the Cole-Higashioka battery according to Baseball-Reference. Higashioka has demonstrated an aptitude to excel in catcher framing statistics and has played a key role in Cole’s slider success in terms of how the pitch is presented to umpires. The duo always seems to be in sync as they are regularly immersed in deep conversations, analyzing video or quickly making in-game adjustments.

Since the advent of the Cy Young Award in 1956, five Yankees pitchers have walked away with the honor at the end of a season: Bob Turley (1958), Whitey Ford (1961), Sparky Lyle (1977), Ron Guidry (1978) and Roger Clemens (2001). On four occasions, Cole has finished in the top five of voting in both the American and National Leagues. His best finish in the voting had occurred in 2019 where he was runner-up to former Houston Astros teammate Justin Verlander. Cole had posted a 20-5 record with a 2.50 earned run average while striking out 326 batters over 212.1 innings.

The New York Yankees will need to confront a serious question regarding how to manage Cole’s workload, especially given the intense pressure placed upon them from the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. A pitcher leading their ball club to the postseason is not a prerequisite for winning the Cy Young Award in either league. However, it can be a deciding factor in a tight competition between pitchers amid outstanding seasons. Gerrit Cole has repeatedly demonstrated unrivaled excellence and rest assured it will continue in the final weeks of the season as his eyes are solely focused on the task at hand. It is of the opinion of this writer that Cole’s dogged pursuit of postseason baseball for the Yankees will also lead to his first and long overdue Cy Young Award.