Case for Yankees starting Nestor Cortes in ALDS Game 1 over Gerrit Cole was clear

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 01: Nestor Cortes #65 of the New York Yankees delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on October 01, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 01: Nestor Cortes #65 of the New York Yankees delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on October 01, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

You’ve already heard the tone changing among New York Yankees fans, if it hadn’t already a lot earlier in the year. But a lot of folks are on board with the team starting Nestor Cortes in Game 1 of a playoff series over Gerrit Cole at this point. And it’s no longer even a “hot take,” even though Aaron Boone went traditional and selected Cole for the opener on Sunday.

It might actually be considered “the take” because of Cortes’ success the past two seasons when compared to Cole’s blowups in big situations over the same span. But it’s quite easy to look at “the numbers” and determine a player’s status over another. Anybody can do that. And sometimes it’s the wrong assessment! That’s why we’re going to look at this “case” in its totality, given what the Yankees face in the coming weeks.

But for all the statheads out there, here are the numbers:

  • Nestor Cortes: 12-4, 2.44 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 0.92 WHIP, 163 strikeouts in 28 starts (158.1 innings)
  • Gerrit Cole: 13-7, 3.51 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, 248 strikeouts in 32 starts (194.2 innings)

Let’s put it this way — if Cortes were the one making $324 million, there’d be no question he’d have the ball in Game 1.

Anyway, Cole allowed the most home runs in the American League, but also struck out the most batters. Cortes is seventh in the AL among pitchers in WAR and second in WHIP, while limiting hard contact all year.

The styles of these pitchers should also play into the potential decision to swap them for Game 1 of the ALDS.

The case for the Yankees to start Nestor Cortes in Game 1 over Gerrit Cole

Cortes is a crafty lefty. Cole is a power pitcher. There’s great value in both of these approaches. But there would’ve been a specific advantage to using Cortes in Game 1 of the ALDS followed by Cole in Game 2.

MLB’s schedule for the playoffs actually aligns better for this. If the Yankees were to start Cortes in Game 1 — the better pitcher — and theoretically get the win, that would leave the opposition stuck with Cole in Game 2 … which is two days later (Game 1 is Oct. 11, Game 2 is Oct. 13). There’s another day off on Friday before Game 3, but then Games 3-5 will be played on consecutive days (Oct. 15-17). If Games 4-5 are necessary, here’s why this would make more sense for the Yankees.

Come Game 5, the Yankees would have Cortes on full rest and Cole on short rest, which he’s had no problem handling before. There’d be the luxury of having both available for the do-or-die matchup, but even better, starting Cole, the power pitcher, at home (two home games for him instead of a possible Game 4 on short rest on the road!) would be advantageous, especially if facing middle-of-the-road offenses in Tampa Bay or Cleveland.

Assuming Cole gets the job done, that would give Nestor extended rest until Game 1 of the ALCS (Oct. 19) in a year where he’s already thrown 65 more innings than his career-high mark of 93 set in 2021. The Yankees have done a great job managing the lefty’s innings this year, and if they can continue to do it in the postseason after he sets the tone in Game 1 of the ALDS, that’d be the dream.

Then there’s the pressure factor. The Yankees almost need to win whatever Game 1 matchup they have come Oct. 11 in the Bronx. Cole has dealt with such pressure constantly, and it’s not outlandish to assume there’s some truth to the requirement of victory affecting his ability to perform.

Nestor, on the other hand, while he hasn’t been faced with many such situations, will encounter a much more relaxed atmosphere, given the fanfare around him compared to Cole. It might sound dumb, but this is where the “human element” should reign supreme.

Look at it this way: either Cole is facing guaranteed pressure in Game 1 as the $324 million ace, or he’s facing pressure should the Yankees falter in Game 1 and desperately need a win in Game 2. There’s an alternative, though. Cole facing little pressure if the Yankees go up 1-0. He gets the home start playing with house money and might feel more comfortable letting it fly, rather than mentally examining his each and every pitch or getting thrown off by the smallest of interruptions with the stakes as high as they could possibly be.

Now, back to stats. Here’s Cole’s track record starting in Game 1s vs Game 2s:

  • Gerrit Cole in Game 1s – 5.67 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in five starts (27 innings)
  • Gerrit Cole in Game 2s – 2.03 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 37 strikeouts in four starts (26.2 innings)

Two of those “Game 1s” were starts in Wild Card Games, so take with that what you will. But we could also shuffle in Game 3s and 5s that weren’t do-or-die and see similar results.

That said, this muddies the picture for the ALCS. If Cole pitches in Game 5 of the ALDS, which he likely will regardless of whether he starts Game 1 or 2, he probably won’t be ready to go until Game 3 of the ALCS, because Games 1 and 2 would only allow him one or two days of rest. That’s not enough. Then he’d be on short rest again for Game 7 on Oct. 26 after he pitches in Game 3. The “good” problem to have here is, obviously, the Yankees winning the ALDS and ALCS in fewer than 5 and 7 games, which would allow them to rework the order of operations for the pitching staff. We have no choice but to lay out the worst-case scenario, though. But hey, Game 3 of the ALCS, should the Yankees face the Astros, would be in the Bronx! Might be better for him!

Either way, it might actually be better to have Cole as the fearsome bulldog later in the series rather than the tone setter … because if he loses in the latter role, there’s increased pressure on everybody else who may not be able to handle it (Luis Severino, Jameson Taillon).

Look at it from this perspective: whether Cole is starting Game 1 or not, manager Aaron Boone is going to use him on short rest as much as he possibly can, should the situation call for it. Does it really “matter” when that is? The goal should be putting him in the best situation to get the team a win while maximizing the other pitching talent around him.

There’s no telling if this is the solution, but it might be in the Yankees’ best interest to go off script a bit, because whenever they go “by the book” in recent years, it just hasn’t panned out for them.