The last time the Yankees had the hands-down best starting pitcher in his league was 43 years ago. His name was Ron Guidry, and he had a season that too often gets forgotten when we talk about the best one any modern starter has ever had, and that includes Koufax and Seaver and Carlton and Gibson and Palmer and anybody else you want to throw into the conversation. Guidry, known as Louisiana Lightning because that’s exactly what he was, ended up 25-3 in 1978, and that’s only where the conversation begins with the Cy Young Award winner.
Guidry had an earned run average of 1.74 in ‘78. He threw nine shutouts and 16 complete games. He struck out 248 batters, walked just 72 and gave up 187 hits in 273 2/3 innings. And when Bob Lemon, the manager, didn’t know who would start the one-game playoff in the American League East against the Red Sox — forever known as the Bucky Dent Game — Guidry took the ball on short rest and was the winning pitcher that day, too. He did all this despite being as skinny as a swizzle stick.
The Yankees have had some famous starters since. Roger Clemens came to the Yankees and pitched like a star, even though it was after he was the best in the league. The Yankees had David Cone and Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina. CC Sabathia was something to see when he first hit the big city, a true ace in every way. He was the one who came closest to being the kind of horse that Gerrit Cole has the chance to be. The kind that Guidry once was. But even CC was never the top guy in the American League as a Yankee.
Shane Bieber has been tremendous for the Indians over the past three seasons, and he had an amazing short season in 2020. He had an earned run average of 1.63 and an 8-1 record and struck out 122 hitters in 77 1/3 innings and won a Cy Young Award in the process. But when you add it up for 2018-20, Cole has been better. He has been as dominant in his league as Jacob deGrom has been in his.
He is the ace for whom the Yankees have been looking for a long time. And when the money was on the table last offseason, Cole was everything the Yankees hoped he would be when they signed him away from the Astros as a free agent for $324 million, and showed he fits Buck Showalter’s definition of a true ace in baseball:
“You know one when you see one.”
No one has won more postseason games over the past three years — seven — than Cole has, first with the Astros and now with the Yankees. And it is worth pointing out again that Cole has led Major League Baseball in wins over the past three seasons: 77 starts, a won-loss record of 42-13, an ERA of 2.71. He has struck out 696 batters in 485 2/3 innings, which puts him at number one in strikeouts starting in ’18. Only Mr. deGrom and Aaron Nola have pitched more innings.
Cole is one of those guys. He is Opening Day. He is Game 1. He was Game 5 in the Yankees’ best-of-five against the Rays, even though the team lost. On Sunday, I asked A.J. Hinch — who managed Cole in Houston, who saw firsthand in start after start how much arm and stuff and intelligence Cole has with a baseball in his hand — what he thinks makes Gerrit Cole special.
“Gerrit isn’t one of the best pitchers in baseball just because of his stuff,” Hinch, now managing the Tigers, said. “That’s the easy thing to evaluate. Gerrit is elite because of his mindfulness to every detail. His understanding of the game is extraordinary. The way he challenges himself to prepare is special. He throws every pitch with a purpose and for a reason. He sees everything on the days he pitches and, more importantly, on the days he doesn’t. He pitches with just enough intensity to keep him on the edge, yet doesn’t ever lose his focus.”
Then Hinch added this: “I really enjoyed my time with him and learned a lot from him about what it takes to be elite on the mound.”
Listen to Cole himself after just a Spring Training start against the Blue Jays the other day:
“We wanted to move the fastball better today. I thought we had some good runs of located pitches and we mixed well. As you’re continuing to build up, it’s important to make sure you hit the threshold of the amount of mix that you want to bring out in the regular season, while also throwing the amount of pitches.”
You know why the Yankees went after him as hard as they did. They had gone up against Justin Verlander in the postseason and lost. Then they went up against Verlander and Cole in the postseason and lost. It has been a long time since they had the guy in the league. Cole can be that guy. This year.