It may be a bit early in the season to talk about Cy Young Awards, but it isn’t outlandish to say that Saturday’s Yankees at Indians matchup features two starters that are likely to finish among the leading vote-getters in November. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber will start opposite Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, pitting two of the four AL pitchers with at least 1.0 WAR per FanGraphs so far this season against each other.
“It’s exciting. Baseball is a weird game and there’s no telling how it’s going to end up, whether it’s going to be a pitchers’ duel or there’s going to be some runs on the board,” Bieber told reporters Friday, when asked about facing off against fellow No. 1 starters. “For instance, with that last one with Lucas [Giolito] kind of was as advertised and ended up being a fun pitchers’ duel. But yeah, I think I can speak for most guys in the starting role: When there’s a matchup like that, it’s exciting and you have to see yourself elevate for it and go out there and perform.”
It’s not just that both are aces of their respective staffs. Both Cole and Bieber are strikeout pitchers, and there’s plenty of overlap between what they’ve done lately. For instance, Bieber leads the Majors in strikeouts on breaking pitches since the start of last season, with 105. Cole is sixth on that list, with 71. Bieber won the 2020 AL Cy Young Award, while Cole has four top-five Cy Young finishes.
The two former University of California system attendees haven’t faced off in the regular season before, but they did meet in the 2020 playoffs. Cole went seven innings and struck out 13 batters, allowing two runs in a Yankees’ victory in AL Wild Card Series Game 1, while Bieber allowed seven runs on nine hits in just 4 ⅔ innings.
Both pitchers are off to strong starts so far in 2021. Here’s a tale of the tape for both pitchers, looking at what they’ve done in recent memory and what’s at stake moving forward for each.
The Yankees are 2-2 so far in Cole’s starts this season, but that’s not due to lack of results from the righty, who has gone at least five innings in each game and allowed three or fewer runs. He’s struck out at least eight batters in each of his four starts so far this season, too.
Cole’s 39 strikeouts through his first four appearances of the season were the most by any pitcher in Yankees history, surpassing a mark set by Masahiro Tanaka in 2014, at 35.
What does that list look like for the first five starts? Well, Cole is already sixth on the list -- with only four appearances so far. Ahead of him are 1997 David Cone with 40 strikeouts, 2003 Mike Mussina with 23, 2019 James Paxton with 43, 1955 Bob Turley with 46 and 2014 Tanaka with 46.
If Cole strikes out at least eight batters again, his 47 -- or more -- would lead that list. Eight strikeouts would also give him the seventh streak in Yankees history of at least that many strikeouts in five straight outings. The only three pitchers with such streaks of more than five games are CC Sabathia in 2011, Mike Mussina in 2003 and Ron Guidry in 1978, each with seven straight.
These types of lists are nothing new for Cole, who has gotten off to fast starts before. Like in 2018, when he became the fifth pitcher to begin a season with three straight games with at least 10 strikeouts, at least, at the time.
When Cole posted three straight 10-strikeout games to start the 2018 season, nobody had ever begun a year with more. That’s no longer true, as Bieber enters Saturday riding a streak of four straight 10-strikeout games, the longest by anyone to start a season since the mound was moved to its current distance in 1893, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Like Cole, Bieber has started hot before -- he struck out 14 batters on Opening Day in 2020, coming just one shy of tying the record. He continued to build on that start over the course of the season, and ultimately took home Cy Young honors.
This year, in addition to the 10-strikeout games streak, he also tied the record for most strikeouts in a pitcher’s first four appearances of a season, with 48 -- before Jacob deGrom broke that record on Friday night, putting Bieber and Nolan Ryan in 1978 in second place instead.
So, what does the list look like through five games in a season? Ryan leads the way with 59 in ‘78, followed by Randy Johnson’s 55 in 1999 and then Bieber’s 54 last year, which is also tied with Pedro Martínez in 2001 and Ryan in 1973. Eight strikeouts on Saturday would give Bieber sole possession of second on the list, and 12 would make him first -- at least, until deGrom pitches again.
Since Bieber already owns the record for most consecutive 10-strikeout games to start a season, we can look at other context should he reach the double-digit plateau again on Saturday. The single-season record is nine and belongs to none other than Bieber’s Saturday opponent, Cole, in 2019.
But Bieber has actually had at least 11 strikeouts in each of his starts this year. The last pitcher with a streak of at least five straight games with more than 10 strikeouts? You guessed it, Cole in 2019. Overall, there have been 10 single-season such streaks of at least five games. The record is eight straight games with more than 10 strikeouts, by Martínez in 1999.
What could be in store
As Bieber said, you never know what will happen when aces face off. When he faced Lucas Giolito on April 13, both starters turned in scoreless efforts -- Giolito seven innings, Bieber nine -- in a game that didn’t feature a run until two were scored in the 10th inning.
There’s already been one game this season where both starters struck out 10 or more batters without a walk: Corbin Burnes and José Berríos on April 3. There have been just three games since at least 1901 where both starters had at least 13 strikeouts -- a mark each hurler has reached at least once this year. The last time that happened was July 9, 1971, when Rudy May had 13 for the Angels and Vida Blue struck out 17 for the A’s in an extra-inning game. None of those three instances were in nine-inning contests.
What about the even less likely outcome? It’s always worth noting when two aces oppose each other: there’s been just one game in MLB history where both starters threw at least nine no-hit innings: May 2, 1917, between the Reds’ Fred Toney and the Cubs’ Hippo Vaughn, who allowed two singles in the tenth.
When two of the game’s top three pitchers come to play, you never know what could happen.