Gerrit Cole is closing in on his first Cy Young

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Two weeks ago in Anaheim, Gerrit Cole stood on the field during batting practice and thought out loud about all the things he didn’t get to do during the 2020 season.

“This was one of the many things I missed last season,” Cole said of being back in his hometown. “I missed about 100 games, I missed a bunch of sellouts. Playing in front of speakers was pretty brutal.”

Cole has had no issues getting back into the swing of things as the Major League Baseball season progressed toward normalcy over the course of this 162-game year. Aside from a stint on the COVID injured list in early August and a hamstring injury that briefly pushed his most recent start back a few days, Cole has been one of the few constants in a fitful season for the Yankees.

“Part of the job as a starting pitcher is being able to grind and be durable,” Cole said after going five innings with seven strikeouts against the Orioles in his first game back from the hamstring issue. “You try to manage the challenges as best as you can. I take a lot of pride in taking the ball every time Aaron (Boone) asks me.”

Nearly every single time Boone has asked, Cole has answered the bell. Apart from the abbreviated start against the Blue Jays that ended when his hamstring flared up, Cole has only had one outing this year that lasted fewer than five innings. In the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets on the Fourth of July, Cole needed 80 pitches to get 10 outs, walking three and allowing four earned runs before making an early exit.

Since then, Cole has made it clear that he deserves his first Cy Young award. In ten starts since getting battered by the Mets, he has a 2.45 ERA (even lower than his full-season mark of 2.75) and has fanned eight or more hitters in seven of those appearances. This stretch includes his complete game shutout in Houston, the 15-strikeout showpiece against the Angels, and a 22.1-inning scoreless streak that overlapped with the Yankees’ 13-game winning streak.

As of Wednesday morning, Cole leads all American League qualified starters in strikeouts (224), Wins Above Replacement (5.4), strikeouts per nine innings (12.32), WHIP (1.00), strikeout percentage (34.6%), called + swinging strike percentage (32.4%) and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.63), which measures how a pitcher’s ERA would look with league average results on batted balls, removing the Yankees’ often-suspect defense from the equation.

Cole’s best Cy Young finish came in 2019 when he lost to his then-Astros teammate Justin Verlander. This season, Cole has been quick to give credit to his Yankee teammates, particularly the bullpen guys who have helped Cole’s strong individual performances become wins for the team.

“It’s not without getting picked up by your teammates,” Cole said of his success. “I owe those guys quite a bit.”

When it comes time to hand out the hardware, Cole’s stiffest competition should be Toronto’s Robbie Ray, Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi, and Chicago’s duo of Carlos Rodon and Lance Lynn. Eovaldi pales in comparison when it comes to strikeouts, a category in which Cole and Ray are basically neck-in-neck. The Blue Jays’ lefty has a slightly better ERA than Cole, but Ray allows more walks, homers and hard contact while inducing fewer ground balls. Rodon and Lynn both missed time with injuries that will hurt their final innings total at the end of the season, even though they both currently have ERA’s at 2.50 or lower.

Cole may also have the benefit of Yankees’ mystique on his side. He set the club record for fewest starts (24) needed to reach 200 strikeouts, and he’s already tied David Cone’s single-season Yankee record for most ten-strikeout games in a season. The Yankees’ latest right-handed power pitcher needs one more double-digit effort to beat the record Cone set in 1998. With 25 more strikeouts down the stretch, Cole would also break Ron Guidry’s franchise record of 248, achieved during Guidry’s iconic 1978 campaign.

“Yeah, I’m aware,” Cole said when confronted with the idea that Guidry’s record is within reach. “I try not to think about it but you’re not making it easy.”

Two or three more good starts — Cole is likely slated to finish his season with bouts against Cleveland, Boston and Tampa Bay — should make it easy for voters to deliver some shiny hardware to the man who seemingly has everything else.

The most guaranteed money a pitcher has ever received. Four All-Star nods. An ERA and a strikeout crown in the same year. A 324-strikeout season that ranks 12th in any season since integration. All that’s left is the award for baseball’s best pitcher, and if the Yankees can get hot again, another shot at a World Series title.

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