NEW YORK -- The Gerrit Cole the Yankees are going to see in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium isn’t the same Gerrit Cole they saw in April.
That was before Cole became a monster on the mound for the Astros, a dominant strikeout machine who has been virtually untouchable since early summer. That was before his command improved, his confidence soared and he thrust himself into the thick of the American League Cy Young Award race with an unbelievable final two-thirds of the season.
The Cole the Yankees will see when they face the Astros with the series tied, 1-1, is a pitcher who’s currently the most feared starter in the game and is set to make arguably the biggest start of his career.
“It's going to be exciting,” Cole said. “I pitched here once before, and I had a lot of fun. I always enjoy coming here, and I've heard my teammates' recollection of the atmosphere here. So it just sounds like, what a great stage and electric atmosphere and a great place to play some exciting baseball.”
In 24 starts in the regular season and playoffs since May 27, Cole is 18-0 with a 1.66 ERA and 0.79 WHIP, striking out 251 batters in 162 1/3 innings in that span. The Astros are 22-2 in those starts, including 15-0 in the times Cole has taken the ball since July 17.
Cole has struck out at least 10 batters in a Major League-record 11 consecutive starts, averaging 15.71 strikeouts per nine innings. He struck out 39.9 percent of the batters he faced in the regular season. Yankees manager Aaron Boone said improved command has elevated Cole’s game.
“That’s always the separator for guys, especially guys with elite stuff like he has,” Boone said. “He's commanding the ball as well as he ever has.”
Cole’s arsenal begins with a four-seam fastball that averages 97 mph and can hit 100, especially late in games when he’s emptying his tank. His slider (89.2-mph average) and curveball (82.6 mph) are elite swing-and-miss weapons.
Cole is a unique blend of a competitor and someone who studies the game and his craft relentlessly to get better. When he gave up nine runs (eight earned) in an April 20 start against the Rangers, Cole went into overdrive to get his season on track, including seeing if he was tipping pitches. He devoured information from the analytic team. He changed the shape of his slider, improving its bite to keep it out of the middle of the plate. The slider and curveball became wipeout pitches.
“I didn't try to make any drastic changes from that start [in Texas] to the next,” Cole said. “I just kind of brushed it off and used it as like a little bit of a check, like, ‘Hey, maybe that night was the perfect storm that led to that many runs.’ But you can get beat by not taking care of small details, and maybe it only manifests itself into one run. And so it was just a good reinforcer to just continue to try to fine-tune your craft from all different perspectives, but at the same time don't overreact to it, either."
Cole has a toolbox of weapons and deep knowledge of the hitters he faces, which he uses to his advantage. He reads swings and reacts. He constantly talks with his teammates to find out what works for them and how he might use it to his advantage, too.
“I think with Gerrit, he's always in pursuit of perfection when it comes to his prep, to his execution, to his overall game planning and stuff like that,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “So for me, I think he was searching for answers at that point on what part of that was a little bit off or why were they having a little bit more success.”
Cole’s only appearance against the Yankees this year came in a 6-3 win on April 9 in Houston, during which he took a no-decision. He worked seven innings and allowed three runs, four hits and three walks while striking out six batters. His lone appearance on the mound at Yankee Stadium came in a start for the Pirates on May 18, 2014, a 5-3 Pittsburgh victory.
Cole grew up as a fan of the Yankees, admiring Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but still didn’t sign with New York when it drafted him with the 28th overall pick in the 2008 MLB Draft. He opted to attend UCLA and was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011 by the Pirates, who dealt him to the Astros prior to the 2018 season.
Before Cole was dealt to Houston, there were rumors he could be headed to the Yankees. But the trade to the Astros has worked out for the best for Cole, who benefited from Houston’s analytics. He hasn’t thought about the Yankees much since.
“They're as advertised,” Cole said. “They're extremely talented. They are extremely tough in the box. They play every pitch hard. They're always trying to put pressure on you, trying to control counts. I think that it's inevitable that guys are going to have good at-bats against you, and a lot of times the test is going to be how you respond. I think for the most part we've done a good job up to this point, and [I'm] just looking to continue to slightly improve and continue just to keep figuring out what we think will bring us some success.”