It’s no secret that Gerrit Cole is off to an incredible start in 2021. Through 10 starts, he is doing exactly what the Yankees acquired him to do and more – he’s currently 6-2 with a 1.81 ERA, 92 strikeouts in only 64.2 innings, and an incredible 226 ERA+. Even his bad starts are merely average. Although the true Gerrit Cole experience in New York may have been delayed, fans are finally hoping to see what a full season of ace pitching will look like from the team’s marquee 2019 signing, and so far we have not been disappointed.
If we were to project Cole’s early-season stats to an entire year, assuming he pitches approximately 200 innings, the results would be pretty mind-blowing; you would see something in the range of an 18-win season with over 270 strikeouts and 8+ WAR. Although the year is young, I couldn’t help but wonder – that would be the Yankees’ best starting pitching season in a really long time, right? Where could Gerrit Cole rank in the pantheon of recent Yankees’ aces when the book is closed on 2021?
Throughout their vaunted history, the Yankees have employed many great pitchers who have done many great things. However, most lists of the “greatest Yankees starting pitchers of all time” and “greatest single-season Yankees starting pitching performances” feature predominantly, if not exclusively, performances from before 1980. 1980 was a long time ago – Gerrit Cole, in fact, was not born until September 8, 1990. Cole is clearly poised to become the standard-bearer for a new era of Yankees pitching, but he may also be on his way to the best season the Yankees have seen since before his own birth. To contextualize, I bring you a few excellent seasons by Yankees starting pitching, post-1990 edition.
Jimmy Key, 1993Embed from Getty Images
139 ERA+, 18-6, 3.00 ERA, 6.3 bWAR
When Gerrit Cole was a toddler, Jimmy Key was a bright spot on a Yankees team that was pulling itself out of perennial awfulness. Key, who came to the Yankees in the ‘92-’93 offseason after nine years and a World Series title in Toronto, brought veteran presence and great results to the pitching staff. Not only did he have one of the best years of his career, he had the best pitching season that the Yankees’ beleaguered rotation had seen since Ron Guidry lost his mojo in the mid-80s. Key won a career high 18 games and recorded a career high 173 strikeouts, and also led the league in walk rate with just over one walk averaged per nine innings. He was third in the AL in ERA and WHIP, and despite never really being a “strikeout pitcher” he ranked eighth in the league in that category.
As Key succeeded, so did the Yankees, as they put together their first winning season in five years and finished second in the AL East. Key would continue his ace-like work in the strike-shortened 1994 season, which ended with the Yankees in first place. Although injuries plagued the rest of his career, he was a member of the World Champion 1996 team and can be credited with helping to usher in an era of legendary Yankees success.
Mike Mussina, 2001
143 ERA+, 17-11, 3.15 ERA, 214K, 7.1 bWAR
As was typical for Mike Mussina’s eventual Hall of Fame career, the brilliance of his 2001 campaign was underappreciated and overshadowed. In an era where pitcher wins held a lot more analytical weight than they should have, teammate Roger Clemens’ 20-3 record was the story of the season, although Moose edged him out in every category save for win-loss record. League-wide, Mussina was elite – he finished the season 2nd in ERA, 2nd in WHIP, 2nd in strikeout to walk ratio, 5th in strikeouts per nine innings, and won his fifth career Gold Glove award.
Alas, the BBWAA cared less about such things 20 years ago, and he finished a distant fifth in Cy Young voting – with today’s emphasis on less obvious statistics than pitcher wins, he likely would have been a favorite. His season is probably best remembered for the near-perfect game he threw in Boston on September 2nd, thwarted with 2 outs in the 9th inning by noted dinosaur unbeliever Carl Everett. He should have won a Cy Young and a World Series that year. Hopefully Cole can check those boxes before this season is out.
Andy Pettitte, 1997Embed from Getty Images
156 ERA+, 18-7, 2.88 ERA, 240 IP, 8.4 bWAR
Andy Pettitte more than proved himself as a pitcher to fear in the American League in 1996, but really broke out in 1997 with what would be the best year of his career. He recorded what would be a career-high in innings pitched, the second lowest ERA of his career, allowed only a miniscule 0.3 home runs per 9 innings, and at just 25 years old bolstered a formidable rotation that also featured excellent seasons from veterans David Cone and David Wells. His 8.4 bWAR marked the most valuable season for a Yankees pitcher in nearly 20 years at the time, and no Yankees pitcher has topped that mark since then.
Pettitte never quite replicated the statistical dominance of his 1997 season while with the Yankees, although as we all know he went on to have an extremely successful career in pinstripes with several additional World Series rings. He did, unfortunately, go temporarily insane and pitch in Houston for three years at the prime of his career. We can only hope as fans in 2021 that Gerrit Cole’s Houston phase is over.
CC Sabathia, 2011Embed from Getty Images
143 ERA+, 19-8, 3.00 ERA, 230 Ks, 6.4 bWAR
It was difficult to pick Sabathia’s greatest year in pinstripes, as for the first three years of his contract he was consistently one of the best pitchers in the league and gave the Yankees everything they could have asked for (including a World Series title). He was at his absolute best, however, in 2011, when he posted the second-highest adjusted ERA of his career and the second-highest strikeout total of his career. He posted his third straight year of at least 19 wins, and his fifth consecutive top-5 Cy Young finish, and his 6.4 WAR was the best full season of his career as well.
His first half, while not quite Cole-like, was pretty dominant, as he went 13-4 with a 2.72 ERA with 126 strikeouts in 20 starts before the All Star break, earning him the fifth All-Star appearance of his career.
Luis Severino, 2017
152 ERA+, 14-6, 2.98 ERA, 230 Ks, 5.4 bWAR
2017, as I’m sure we all remember, was the year of the Baby Bombers – Aaron Judge unanimously won the Rookie of the Year award, Gary Sanchez hit 33 home runs, and Greg Bird saved the season in the ALDS. Luis Severino, 23 years old at the time, had an incredible breakout that year as well, and put together one of the most dominant Yankees pitching seasons of the last decade. His first half was good enough to get him on the All-Star team – in his first 17 starts, he went 5-4 with a 3.54 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 106.2 innings – but his second half was where he established himself as one of the most feared pitchers in the league. After the All-Star break, Severino went 9-2 with a 2.28 ERA, striking out 104 batters in 86.2 innings, and posting just an 0.946 WHIP. He really put his foot on the gas as the season ended, going 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA in 5 September starts, allowing just 15 hits in 30 innings. He finished the season third in the league in ERA, WHIP, and hits per 9 innings, and fourth in strikeouts.
Severino struggled in his first postseason start in the Wild Card Game against the Twins, but later redeemed himself with a strong showing in an elimination ALDS game. He finished third in the Cy Young voting behind winner Corey Kluber, who hopefully will be Severino’s rotation mate later in the year when they both come back from injury. Severino’s 2017 reminds us what a formidable combination he and Cole could be at the top of the Yankees rotation for years to come if he is able to maintain his health.
The Yankees have fielded some pretty excellent teams in the last 30 years, but true ace-like seasons from starting pitchers have been somewhat at a premium, which makes watching Cole’s dominance that much more fun. When all is said and done, if he can keep up his current pace, he would outperform all of the aces of the last generation of Yankees teams and would rival Ron Guidry’s legendary 1978 season. Of course, baseball seasons are a marathon and not a sprint, so Yankees fans will just have to enjoy the 162-game ride on the Cole Train to see where this journey ends.