September 30, 2020

The Yankees’ $324 Million Question: Can Gerrit Cole Stay This Good?

Soon after he signed the largest contract ever given to a pitcher, Gerrit Cole was in Hawaii with his wife, Amy, for the wedding of a former college teammate. Cole’s cellphone rang one day with a number he didn’t recognize. He answered it anyway.

After hearing, “Hey, this is Reggie Jackson,” Cole pulled the phone away from his ear for a second and uttered an expletive in delight. One of the biggest stars from the franchise he adored growing up — and now belonged to — was calling to congratulate him.

And when Cole arrived at the team’s spring training facility in Tampa, Fla., this year, he still couldn’t believe that Jackson, a Hall of Famer and a Yankees special adviser, was roaming the same grounds as he was.

“I try to act cool,” Cole, 29, said during a wide-ranging interview in March.

Since December, Cole, one of the best pitchers in baseball, has been, essentially, a kid in a candy store. He was not nervous about his first start in spring training in February, but he was in a casual game of catch with Andy Pettitte, the former Yankees pitcher who also serves as a special adviser. He called it “surreal” when Willie Randolph, the team’s former star player and coach, gave him a fist bump after a preseason appearance because Cole’s father, who was raised in Syracuse, N.Y., and passed on his Yankees fandom to his son, had long admired the second baseman.

“It’s all surreal,” Cole said.

When Cole steps on the mound at Nationals Park on Thursday night to kick off this abbreviated 60-game season against the defending champion Washington Nationals, it will be a debut a lifetime in the making, and one sealed by a lengthy courtship: General Manager Brian Cashman has referred to Cole as his “white whale” after two previous failed attempts to acquire him.

Reeled in last winter with a nine-year, $324 million contract that even he called “a ridiculous amount of money,” it is now time for Cole to prove his worth. Although his Yankees career will begin with what is shaping up to be a bizarre season, nine years is an eternity given the physical demands of modern pitching.

So can Cole, who went from being a talented (but often injured) pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates to perhaps the best in the sport with the Houston Astros, sustain that excellence for the next decade?

“It’s like a stock,” relief pitcher Zack Britton said. “You’re hoping that it continues to thrive, but there’s no guarantee. But he’s a good example of a guy that I’d want to be invested in.”

The ability was always there: Cole was listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and throwing in the high 90s at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange County, Calif. The Yankees were tantalized, and selected him in the first round of the 2008 draft.

But Cole passed up the chance to sign for millions because he and his father, who has a doctorate, believed it was more valuable to study at U.C.L.A. and develop into a better pitcher. They were right: The Pirates selected Cole first over all in the 2011 draft and signed him for a then-record $8 million.

Transforming into the $324 million ace of the Yankees has required constant tinkering and improvement at every stage — and Cole’s new club is banking on that ambition to justify its enormous financial commitment.

ImageCole’s talent was apparent with the Pirates in 2015, but injuries hindered him.
Credit…Charles Leclaire/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Cole was good with the Pirates — a 3.50 earned run average in five years and an All-Star selection in 2015 — but two significant injuries convinced him that he needed to work on his durability “first and foremost,” he said, if he was going to be traded or reach free agency. He changed his training, and his trainers.

Although the 2017 season was his worst, with a 4.26 E.R.A., Cole surpassed the 200-inning plateau again and his average fastball velocity inched back up to 96 m.p.h.

Houston, though, is where he thrived, after the Astros beat out the Yankees to trade for Cole before the 2018 season. With the help of the Astros’ analytics-driven front office, he realized his four-seam fastball was more effective than the two-seamer he had been using — particularly high in the strike zone, where he could counteract the uppercut home run swings hitters were using more and more.

“I essentially learned a new pitch by prioritizing my four-seam,” said Cole, who scrapped the two-seam fastball.

Always a sponge of baseball strategy, Cole picked his teammate Justin Verlander’s brain on harnessing his fastball and Dallas Keuchel’s to better understand how to fool opposing batters with perceived balls and strikes. Opponents hit .166 against Cole’s four-seam fastball, the lowest average in the major leagues among starting pitchers in 2019.

“It’s something impressive,” catcher Gary Sanchez said. “If you see it high in the zone, it keeps going. It’s not like it comes in high and then drops.”

Cole’s two seasons in Houston were the best of his career. In 2019, he was 20-5 with a 2.50 E.R.A. and 326 strikeouts over 212 innings, and earned a win over the Yankees in the American League Championship Series on the way to a World Series defeat to the Nationals. He finished second to Verlander for the A.L. Cy Young Award.

Cole said he can get even better, without specifying exactly how.

“You see this with most great players: They’re never really satisfied and always kind of scratching, ‘Where can I get a little bit better or where can I make little improvements?’” Manager Aaron Boone said. “With him, you really notice that.”

Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

It is partly because of that drive and intellect that Matt Blake, the Yankees’ new pitching coach, said he believed Cole would buck the aging curve of most players in baseball.

“He’s not a one-trick pony where once the fastball velocity goes, he’s not viable anymore,” Blake said. “He’s going to age well because he knows how to shape the ball, and he’s very understanding of what the greats have done and how they have evolved.”

Signs of Cole’s rigorous attention to detail have been obvious since he signed with the Yankees. The day after a spring training game in March, he talked to Sanchez about pitching strategies, mimicking batters’ swings and plotting attacks on a hand-drawn strike zone. When a teammate has been throwing a live batting practice, Cole is often watching nearby. And although he has no reason to bat this season, he has been in the hitting coach Marcus Thames’s ear.

“Gerrit likes to talk hitting,” Thames said. “He’s so cerebral, so he’ll come ask me.”

Cole knows people will question the wisdom of his nine-figure contract. In response, he rattled off a list of success stories of top starting pitchers on large contracts, including Max Scherzer (two Cy Young Awards and the 2019 World Series title), Jon Lester (2016 World Series title) and Verlander (a Cy Young Award and the 2017 World Series title).

Cole brushed aside the notion that the Yankees are hoping for their return to pay off in his early years while writing off the later years as an inevitable drop-off, as is sometimes the case with contracts as long as his.

“They don’t really pay me for my opinion,” Cole said. “They pay me for my work. And I can promise you I will always work. Everyone else is entitled to their opinions, but I’m here to be as best I can, help contribute to this clubhouse atmosphere as best I can and prepare as best I can. I’m ready to do this.”

Credit…Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Ultimately, Cole knows he will be judged — including by himself — on championships. In a traditional 162-game regular season, Cole would make as many as 34 starts. This year, it may be only 12. The margin for error is smaller in a season already laden with pressure and expectations for the Yankees, who haven’t won a World Series since 2009. His contract is no small investment for a team that has reined in its spending in recent years.

“We need to win,” he said. “My performance is my performance. But as a team and an organization, the goal is to win a World Series. Whatever I need to do to contribute to get that is really what I’m going to do.”

With his nine-year contract (which could extend to 10 years if the Yankees trigger a clause), Cole isn’t going anywhere for quite some time. This is home. And if he had signed this massive deal with a team other than the Yankees, Cole said he would have begged to wear the pinstripes when his contract ran out at 38.

“I would’ve been banging on the door: ‘Please give me a job,’” he said.

Back at his home in Southern California, Cole has three memorable possessions. One is a ball Derek Jeter, the Hall of Fame shortstop, tossed to then 11-year-old Cole in Arizona during the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks. Another is the now famous “Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever” sign Cole was spotted holding in the stands in that series — the same one he took to his introductory news conference in New York in December.

The third piece of memorabilia feels like a fitting bookend as Cole embarks on his own Yankees journey. During that World Series, Cole secured the autograph of a famous former Yankee on a ball at a coffee shop across the street from the team hotel: Jackson’s.