Yankees: Gerrit Cole can earn his contract with win in AL Wild Card Game

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees looks on against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium on May 21, 2021 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the White Sox 2-1. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees looks on against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium on May 21, 2021 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the White Sox 2-1. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

Woah! Cool it! We’re not at ALL saying the New York Yankees paying Gerrit Cole the money they did was the wrong decision. So if you’re about to read this article with that take at the forefront of your mind, either close out the window or take a 30-second breather to hear us out.

As most fans know, star pitcher Cole signed a record-setting nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees following the 2019 season. The entire dollar amount is guaranteed and will include an annual average salary of $36 million, which comes out to just over $1 million per start.

Cole is arguably one of the two or three best starting pitchers in MLB. His acquisition was loudly applauded by Yankees fans and envied by opposing clubs. Following a long spell, the Yanks finally had someone to lead their starting rotation for years to come.

Cole finished the 2019 season 20-5 with a 185 ERA+, a 2.64 FIP, and a 0.895 WHIP as a member of the Houston Astros. He struck out an absurd 326 batters and walked only 48 hitters in 212.1 innings. Ridiculous.

He led the American League in almost every pitching category and finished second in the voting for the Cy Young Award to his Astros teammate Justin Verlander. While Verlander also had a great campaign, many believe Cole should’ve taken home the hardware.

Because of Cole’s impressive pitching stats and his new lucrative contract, baseball analysts and Yankee fans expected him to continue to perform with his new team at a similar high level. Unfortunately, this has not quite been the case (but the results have still been good!), causing some fans to be disappointed … and even boo the right-hander after a recent bad start.

Cole finished the 2021 season 16-8 with a 133 ERA+, a 2.91 FIP, and a 1.06 WHIP. He struck out 243 batters and walked 41 hitters in 181.1 innings. Although these figures are not bad, they are down from his numbers in 2019, the last full season he pitched, and aren’t exactly top-tier ace-like.

However, Cole should not be blamed for any of this, which has really only been punctuated by a few dismal starts. In contrast to his past, the last two years have been overshadowed by some unforeseen happenings that he couldn’t control.

Yankees starter Gerrit Cole has been affected by things beyond his control.

During the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, his first season with the Yanks, Cole pitched quite well. The Yankee right-hander went 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA. He struck out 94 hitters and walked only 17 in 73 innings pitched. He posted a 151 ERA+, a 3.89 FIP, and a 0.959 WHIP. He finished among the top four in the American League Cy Young Award voting.

However, as we know, the 2020 season was unique and weird. With no fans in the stands, required COVID-19 protocols in place, and only 60 games to play, Cole pitched only about one-third the number of innings he had thrown in the previous season. This was tantamount to taking a year off in between the 2019 and 2021 seasons, and he (like other pitchers) struggled to build himself back up so that he could be a workhorse in 2021.

Also, in 2020, his untimely home run allowed to Austin Meadows just summed up the Rays’ magic and how they were truly “built” for a 60-game sprint … but turns out they’re built for a 162-game marathon, too, with an even worse roster.

Nonetheless, the adverse effect of pitching so few innings spilled over into this season and threw everything off for the flamethrower. Cole was forced to rebuild his stamina during the season, and his performances in what fans would deem “must-win” games against rivals or direct competitors was a mixed bag. Some good. Some really bad.

Additionally, Cole probably thought he would be pitching for the same record-setting Yankees offenses of 2018 and 2019 in 2020 and 2021. However, the stark underperformance by the Bronx Bombers on both offense (and defense) in the abbreviated 2020 campaign continued into the regular 2021 season. To a large degree, this is reflected in his season-ending stats this year.

Another issue that directly and negatively affected his execution on the mound was the team’s catching situation. Although he began his Yankee career throwing to Gary Sanchez, the Yanks’ primary backstop, he eventually realized he had a better pitching rapport with Kyle Higashioka, the backup catcher.

Cole likely informed manager Aaron Boone after his first start of the year (which Gary caught) that he’d be better off with Higgy behind the dish permanently. The data clearly bore this out; it wasn’t even close. And Corey Kluber soon followed suit with the same strategy.

COVID-19 and hamstring injury late in the season were also obstacles for Cole and Yankees.

Contracting COVID-19 and an injury at the end of the season also limited Cole’s contributions in 2021. At the very beginning of August, Cole tested positive for COVID-19 and was placed on the IL until the middle of the month. He spent two weeks away from the ball club and likely missed three starts, thereby preventing him from making the maximum contributions.

Cole then experienced hamstring tightness on Sept. 7 while pitching in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays. He returned to the mound on September 14 (and earned his 15th win). But the injury interrupted his pitching sequence and threw him off his game. The timing of the hamstring issue was awful, and he spent the remainder of September attempting to return to form after being on a roll. He owned a 6.35 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in his four starts after suffering the injury.

On top of that, we saw many pitchers in the American League East exceed expectations and perform well (e.g., the Boston Red Sox Nathan Eovaldi, a couple of pitchers on the Blue Jays, and most of the pitchers for the Tampa Bay Rays).

By the end of the season, Cole should have been a lock for receiving his first Cy Young Award (and the Yankees should have already clinched a Wild Card berth). However, the serendipitous events of the 2021 season undermined his performance and reduced most of his critical indicators of pitching prominence.

The Blue Jays’ Robbie Ray has come out of nowhere to become the favorite to win the Cy Young Award for 2021. Given how close their records are, Cole would have easily walked away with this year’s award had he been able to pitch three or four more games uninhibited. He no doubt would’ve been below a 3.00 ERA and could grabbed 20 wins.

Still, Cole put up impressive numbers despite having to navigate many significant issues in 2021. His ability to effectively handle difficult and unexpected problems during this season bodes well for his future performance with the Yankees.

And he can truly earn his contract with a win over the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday. He can make an unforgettable statement in The Rivalry, which he’s yet to do, and propel the Bombers in a do-or-die game, which he (and the offense) failed to do in 2020 against the Rays.

This is what he’s paid to do, and he cannot come up short against Eovaldi, who’s bounced around the league for years before discovering his footing with the Sox. On paper, this is a matchup Cole needs to escape victorious by any means necessary, because that’s why aces make the most money in the sport.