On September 19, as the Yankees chased a wildcard in the playoffs, they lost 11-1 to Cleveland in a game in which their ace, Gerrit Cole, allowed seven points. Entering the clubhouse after the final outing, reliever Michael King spotted Cole sitting in receiver Kyle Higashioka’s locker and doing something that matched his meticulous nature.
“He was going over every pitch he just threw,” King said of Cole, who fired 104 that day. “He said to me, ‘Was that the wrong pitch?'”
On Tuesday night, the Yankees will put their playoff hopes on Cole, the star right-hander they signed on to a nine-year, $ 324 million contract heading into the 2020 season for times like this. It’s not just an American League wildcard game to win or come home, and it’s not just against their rivals, the Boston Red Sox. It’s also in Fenway Park.
The Yankees have plenty to be confident about: Cole, a four-time all-star, has produced a 3.23 earned-run average, 16-8 record and 243 strikeouts in 181⅓ innings this season. And in 13 career playoff starts, he has a 2.68 ERA, including two wins for the Yankees in the playoffs last year.
But what separates Cole, 31, from other talented baseball pitchers, his teammates said, is his meticulous attention to detail and his fanatical baseball intellect. He pushes himself and those around him to get better. He offers tips not only to his fellow pitchers but also to the hitters on his team. He often stands near manager Aaron Boone during a game and questions him about his decisions. He loves to talk about baseball all the time.
“He lives, breathes, eats, sleeps baseball,” Higashioka said. “He has a few hobbies, but about the only thing he wants to talk about is baseball. Sometimes I get a random text about the game that night or whatever he’s still thinking about.
Since the wildcard game started in 2012, the Yankees are 2-1 in a one-game format, and they also advanced as a wildcard last year in a best-of-three streak in of a wider pandemic. Cole lost the only wildcard game he started, 4-0, to the Chicago Cubs in 2015 while with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
A dominant force in the regular season for years, Cole saw his performance plummet in 2021, injured by a 5.13 ERA in September. And he was part of a baseball-wide controversy involving the use of foreign substances to better grip and throw the ball, a long-standing rule that was not applied consistently by the MLB until this summer. .
Still, Cole will have to carry a heavy load on the mound in October if the Yankees end their 11-season drought for the World Series title. And outside of the mound – in the dugout or the clubhouse, on the plane or in the restaurant – the Yankees will continue to rely on Cole’s baseball mastermind.
“I love the game and I love my teammates so it’s just nice to talk about the game,” Cole said recently. “And then I think there is added value in having exchanges with other artisans. Whether it’s sharing things about your personal craft or improving yourself as a team, both are beneficial.
Throughout the season, Boone has said that Cole will visit his office every now and then to let off steam or to talk about himself, the team, the season, anything. He said he liked it when Cole stood next to him in the dugout during a match to talk or question him. He joked that it was only once in a while that he wanted Cole to give him some space.
“He really, really cares, and he’s interested in every facet of the game,” Boone said. “On the days when he’s not throwing, he’s totally invested. It’s just who he is. He is intelligent, he is curious, he asks why and he gives his opinion. He pointed out some really interesting things to me that I said to him, ‘Hmm yeah.’ “
Cole said he shared with Boone everything he knew or saw about an opponent. He said he could also ask Boone why or not he was taking out a pitcher in a certain situation or asking him for his reasoning on certain decisions. “I’m certainly not telling him what to do, but I’m asking him questions,” he said.
Cole’s teammates, hitters and pitchers, said he would often offer suggestions. Reliever Chad Green said Cole was a helpful resource in his field selection. Jordan Montgomery, whose 3.83 ERA and 157⅓ innings this season were the best scores of his career, said Cole would compliment him when he is doing well, “but if you do badly he will help you get it back. your way. “
King, a key all-rounder on the Yankees’ pitching staff, said during a recent pitching strategy meeting ahead of a series against the Toronto Blue Jays, he and his teammates were amused because he had the felt Cole was talking almost as much as the pitching coach. Matt Blake and had something to say about every opposing hitter. King said all of this information was useful because it went beyond video and analysis.
“He just wants everyone to be at their best,” said Aaron Judge, whose Sunday release secured the Yankees’ place in the wildcard game.
Throughout the season, Higashioka said Cole would mention to him if he noticed a pattern in the way opponents pitch at him. The judge said Cole occasionally asks him after a fight about his thought process to compare grades.
“He’s sitting on the bench thinking about it from both sides,” the judge said. “Like, ‘If I throw right now, how would I throw at this guy?’ or “If I was in the box, what would this guy do?” He’s always one step ahead.
Higashioka said Cole held him responsible as well. If Higashioka mentions in a pre-game meeting how he wants to attack an opposing hitter but takes a different path during the game, Higashioka said Cole will follow and ask why.
“He definitely challenges me to make sure I’m always prepared and making decisions in the game,” Higashioka said.
Blake, who became the Yankees’ pitching coach last year without any major league coaching experience, said Cole had pushed him the same way. “Because he’s so talented, he expects a lot of you to hold him accountable to this person, so he wants to be trained to a high level,” said Blake.
Cole said he was more than willing to speak up if he noticed anything, as this is how good teams and former veteran teammates behaved, like AJ Burnett and Ryan Vogelsong when Cole started his career in Pittsburgh. or Justin Verlander when Cole flourished in Houston.
“It’s a characteristic of a good team,” he said.
This season, Cole has encouraged his fellow pitchers, especially the younger ones, to reflect with Boone and his coaching staff during games. He said Vogelsong used to have him sit near the coaches in the dugout during games in Pittsburgh because, when Vogelsong was with the San Francisco Giants, that’s what they did so that they can learn from Bruce Bochy, the team’s triple in the World Series. winning manager, on the strategy of the game.
During games, starter Nestor Cortes said Cole would stimulate that kind of conversation among his rotating teammates, asking them what they thought their mate on the mound would throw.
“We went back and forth in the canoe about this, ‘Hey, what do you think? What do you have? What pitch is coming up? What do you think he’s going to do? ‘ Said Cortes, whose 2.90 ERA has been an unexpected boon to the Yankees’ rotation this season. “It’s been fun and it’s cool. And I learned a lot because now I can see a different perspective from a great pitcher.
Even when the Yankees go out to dinner, the conversation often revolves around the many facets of baseball, on and off the field. Green said Cole, who is a union representative of the top players, was often the leader of their talks because he knew a lot about the game.
“Whenever we have an opinion on something or a question about something, he’s our go-to guy,” he said.
Tuesday in Boston, Cole will again be exactly that for the Yankees.