Yanks Magazine: A Man For All Time

In some ways, Gerrit Cole has always been a Yankee. He keeps solidifying that generational connection, one K at a time

March 29th, 2023
When Ron Guidry established the new franchise single-season strikeout mark in 1978, he suggested someone would come along and break it in 60 or 70 years. But from the moment the Yankees inked Gerrit Cole in December 2019, Gator knew his time atop the leaderboard would be short-lived. For Cole, who has a knack for getting strikeouts when he needs them most, it was surreal to see his name alongside one of the all-time great Yankees. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

There are times when Yankees history seems endless, and others when the generations meet and tangle in such a way that makes the past six-score years feel compact as a midseason West Coast swing. Jack Chesbro, who Newsday’s Steve Jacobson wrote in 1978 “was known as Happy Jack, because he was not,” took the hill in Washington in the first inning on April 22, 1903, and threw the first pitch for the team then called the New York Highlanders. Yet after all these years, he’s separated from by just two degrees on one specific historic ledger, with only standing between them.

Cole, the Yankees’ ace, and the man penciled in for an Opening Day start during his annual spring physical, is the epitome of a modern athlete -- his brain containing endless lines of data and his body the force to throw triple-digit fastballs. Chesbro, meanwhile, pitched at a time when anything less than a complete game was grounds for a stern talking-to.

In that 1903 season, Chesbro pitched 324 2/3 innings and faced 1,309 batters (a pittance compared to what he’d do the next year, when the totals reached 454 2/3 and 1,720, respectively). Cole, a workhorse by modern standards, finished 2022 with 200 2/3 innings and 793 batters faced. So, some things have changed. And yet, “Happy” Jack Chesbro and Gerrit Cole are linked by fate across the decades, the first Yankees ace and the most recent.

Almost 28 1/2 years after his climb to the American League Park pitcher’s mound in Washington, Chesbro was working on another hill on his chicken farm in Massachusetts when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 57 years old. A decade and a half later, baseball’s Old-Timers Committee would elect him to the Hall of Fame, largely on the basis of his extraordinarily prolific 1904 season, when he won 41 games and established a Yankees benchmark with 239 punchouts. It held for 74 years, and the new mark -- Guidry’s 248 -- for another 44 before Cole claimed the crown last year with 257.

Few things so similar could still be more different than the universes in which Jack Chesbro, Ron Guidry, and Gerrit Cole recorded their record-setting strikeouts. Unlike Guidry in 1978, Cole at least had the opportunity to chat with the man he was elbowing off the perch. In so many other ways, though, Cole’s output is a physical manifestation of the game today, his place in it, and his status among the titans of the most successful franchise in baseball history.

“It’s a little surreal,” Cole says of the notable company he’s keeping. “I spent a little bit of time reflecting on it at the end of the year. But it’s also coupled with the desire to keep getting better.”


Nolan Ryan. Jack Morris. Tom Seaver. All Hall of Famers. Guidry settles on these three when trying to find comps from his generation for the current Yankees ace.

“He’s in the top echelon of your best pitchers in the game,” Guidry says from the hallway outside the Yankees’ clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., where the 72-year-old once again served as a Spring Training instructor this year. “Right now, I don’t think there’s really anything that I could give him to make him any better than he is. And sometimes, it’s best just to let the sleeping dog lie.”

In 2022, Cole took the Yankees’ single-season strikeout record from Guidry (right), who himself claimed it from Chesbro, the very first pitcher in Yankees history. Guidry, the 1978 AL Cy Young Award winner, phoned Cole in the Yankees’ clubhouse to offer his congratulations after the right-hander finished the regular season with 257 strikeouts. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

The reality is that Cole is a technician, a guy who knows every detail in the baseball user’s manual. The pitcher’s 2022 season wasn’t his best strikeout effort. That came with the Astros in 2019, when he struck out 326 batters, for an average of 13.8 batters per nine innings, compared to 11.5 in his Yankees-record-setting year. (Guidry, by way of comparison, registered an 8.2 figure in 1978; Chesbro’s was just 4.7 in 1904.) And, of course, in a year that had so much attention on home runs, Cole’s 33 homers allowed in 33 starts factors into any analysis.

Still, it’s no surprise that for all the might and force behind a huge strikeout tally, Cole thinks of the feat in more mechanical terms.

“It’s the most efficient out,” Cole says. “There’s less probability for stuff to go wrong.” Compare that to the comments on the night Louisiana Lightning broke Chesbro’s record. “I don’t believe in pacing myself,” Guidry said in the postgame clubhouse. “I throw as hard as I can for as long as I can.”

Cole’s interesting that way. He’s engaging and funny. His locker is a popular gathering place in the clubhouse. His teammates recognize who he is and what he is, and they celebrate the fact that they don’t have to face him.

“He’s got four or five or six pitches that are not only good, they’re elite. They’re some of the best in the game,” Aaron Judge says. “He’s going to come after hitters and show them what he’s got. And you’ve got to love that from your ace.”

But that attacking nature can make Cole a difficult hang at times. Unlike Cole’s fellow starting pitcher, the always-loose Nestor Cortes, who bounces around the clubhouse on days he starts, Cole shows up every fifth day looking like it’s already the sixth inning. Forget the gregarious and charming teammate he is most of the week; everything about Cole’s persona on a start day screams “STAY AWAY.”

“I’m just trying to get to a place where I can respond to unpredictable things or less-than-ideal performance, or even good performance,” the pitcher says of his game face, admitting that as the calendar flips closer to October, the intensity level rises ever earlier in the day, sometimes settling in even before he leaves the house.

His process is just different. He talks in ways more befitting a car designer at work streamlining his product’s aerodynamics. Take his first start this spring, a solid three-inning effort in which he allowed one hit and struck out four Tigers. Afterward, asked to explain how his spring was going, Cole deferred to his level of comfort in the clubhouse at the start of his fourth Yankees camp, but his first truly normal one.

“I’m not wasting any brainpower learning people’s names,” he said that night. “It just seems like things are more familiar. And I find myself being, I guess, more curious about the game and spending more brainpower on the game, as opposed to making sure I’m not showing up late or calling somebody by the wrong name.

“I want to do things right. I’ve got that kind of boxed up.”

That approach might not work for every pitcher, but it sure suits Cole well.


Spring Training stats are obviously a bit silly. Pitchers are always ahead of the hitters, especially at the outset, and the results truly don’t matter for anyone outside the absolute margins of the roster. Still, it’s worth looking at what Cole did his first two times out this March. In that first start against the Tigers, he allowed two baserunners. The first came on an error behind him and the second came on a well-struck double. Both times, Cole struck the next batter out.

Five days later, the baserunner tally reached three. Once again, Cole responded each time with a punchout. The first five times runners reached against him in 2023, he struck the next guy out.

That’s not an accident and it’s more than talent. Cole, like the truest of aces, just knows how to get a strikeout when he needs one. A strikeout and a groundout have barely measurable differences in outcome, but the latter requires a good deal more synergy from a few more people and, thus, has more room for error.

“It takes away a lot of the luck and the chance involved with balls being put in play,” says pitching coach Matt Blake, explaining the virtue of the K. “I think especially with the way the game is shifting back, in terms of taking away the shifts, I think the more you can limit the ball being in play, the more it favors you.”

For Cole, there is no downtime. The pitcher is constantly improving, both on and off the mound. A generous teammate, the ace is always willing to share knowledge and insight with his teammates, but on days he starts, he wears an impenetrable and intimidating mask that keeps distractions at bay. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Prefer to laugh off the spring statistics? That’s fine. “You saw it in the postseason last year,” Judge points out. Rewind to the 2022 American League Division Series against Cleveland, when Cole pitched the opener, then took the mound again when the Yankees faced elimination down two games to one. Combined, he struck out 16 batters in 13 1/3 innings those two nights, as the Yankees won both games. But notably, nine of the punchouts came with runners on, and another two followed a solo home run. Whenever Cole got into any kind of trouble, he responded by getting the next hitter out as effectively as possible.

“My objective is to have a plan to try to induce a strikeout if I need it, but otherwise just get ahead as quickly as I can and then finish guys off as quickly as I can, whether that be with contact or a strikeout,” Cole explains. “But there are a couple leverage points of the game where it’s sometimes needed. So, you do pitch to it, in that sense.”

You pitch to it by leaning on preparation, to be sure, and Cole also has physiological gifts that far outstrip most of his competition. He’s more than just a pitcher who knows how to throw an unhittable pitch; he also knows why it moves in such mysterious ways. And he knows when to deploy it and why.

“He puts himself in spots where he can add another gear when he needs it,” Blake says. “If he gets to two strikes or he gets in a jam, he’s still got something in the tank to add a little bit of velo, add a little bit of shape to the breaking ball. He kind of just knows how to add and subtract when he needs to in the big spots.”

Then there’s the fact that, the day before a start, he has already visualized himself in nearly every situation he might face. Once the lineup comes out on game day, he can work with his catcher to try to put a puzzle together. He’s so focused, so intent on cutting out distractions and things that are out of his control, that when Cole says that he didn’t know he was chasing Guidry’s single-season strikeout record until his second-to-last start of the season in Toronto, it’s actually believable.

You, however, might remember that night for another reason. Two innings after Cole’s record-tying strikeout, Judge tied Roger Maris with his 61st home run of the season.


Every chat with Guidry, at one point or another, sprays off somewhere beyond the direction you expected. The Bayou native’s conversation style practically demands tangents, often hilarious, such that you both spend as much time laughing as actually talking. So, it’s not surprising that while listing Cole’s assets, “Gator” sets off down a path of his own imagining.

“He always comments about sliders,” Guidry says, his tone suggesting that it would be a strange thing for one pitcher to ask another. “I haven’t asked him yet, but I’m going to ask him one day, ‘Why do you keep talking about sliders?’ I mean, he has a good one. I’m going like, ‘Do you think it’s not good enough? Do we need to talk about slot?’ I’m going to find out one day why he keeps harping about the sliders.”

“Well, he’s got a great slider!” Cole says the next night, laughing after his spring start against Detroit. “I’ll ask him about another pitch next time!”

As Cole mentioned, this was really his first ordinary Spring Training with the Yankees. In 2020 — even before the world shut down — he was adjusting to a totally new environment, having just signed with the Yankees the previous December. The next year, everyone was socially distanced and encouraged to spend as little time together as possible. 2022 was abbreviated and run at a million miles per hour due to the lockout that didn’t end until March 10. One of the casualties from all that was that he hadn’t gotten as many chances as he probably should have by now to get to know “Gator.” But don’t think for a second that Cole — who’s seen quite a bit — takes time with Guidry for granted. The Yanks’ ace holds predecessors such as Whitey Ford and Guidry in the highest regard.

“There’s something to be said about guys that have had the type of success they had in the ’60s and ’70s,” Cole says. “As a kid my age, growing up and hearing about those kinds of guys, it’s a little more legendary, a little more mysterious. You see some of these films of the Bronx going crazy for Guidry’s 18 strikeouts, you know? There’s a little mystique around it.

“Plus, I’m a Yankees fan.”

So that Yankees fan, the one with the sign from the 2001 World Series, chased down a Yankees legend last year, the accomplishment overshadowed in part due to Judge’s home run pursuit sucking up so much of the sports landscape’s oxygen, to say nothing of the sports pages’ column inches. Cole entered his last start of the regular season against Texas tied with Guidry at 248. His first K of the night would establish a new record. But before he even took the mound, Judge hit No. 62 to lead off the game.

“After the second time it happened,” Judge says, “where we both broke it together on the same day, I was like, ‘Man, we’re just team players. We just want to do things together.’”

Cole’s teammates made sure to celebrate the pitcher’s accomplishment that night. And Guidry even called into the clubhouse, gleefully passing the torch to Cole and admonishing the new record-holder for being overly deferential and formal.

“My name is not sir, it’s Gator,” Guidry said over the speakerphone.

The bond is tighter than a once-shared record. Cole wants to win, and more than that, he wants to lead. In Guidry, he sees the rare pitcher to have been named a captain, quite a feat for someone who plays only every fourth or fifth day. He looks toward the aging former ace and sees a man who understands how to prepare to be a champion.

“You see him, and then you’re like, ‘I want to be that good. I’ve got to practice,’” Cole says.


On the night he passed Chesbro, Guidry said, “It’s just another record. Somebody else will probably break it again in 60 or 70 years.” Actually, it took just 44. But Guidry insists that he knew he was just holding the seat from the moment Cole shook Hal Steinbrenner’s hand in December 2019. “I had been waiting for [nearly] four years,” Guidry says now. “I had my speech all ready!”

Indeed, he felt lucky to be able to share the moment with the new record-holder. If Cole’s feat fell a bit under Judge’s shadow, well, Guidry did his at a time when all the major New York City newspapers were on strike. There’s barely any coverage of his record-setting achievement. But beyond that, Chesbro was long dead. He was a name from a book somewhere, not a living embodiment of Yankees greatness, in the way that Guidry is for Cole.

Cole tied Guidry’s mark on the night that Judge tied Roger Maris, then broke it on the night Judge hit No. 62. In another timeline, the pitcher’s feats would have garnered all the headlines, but Judge’s shadow can be pretty overwhelming. “Man, we’re just team players,” the slugger joked about the overlapping history. “We just want to do things together.” (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Cole is signed through 2028 and you can be sure that he would happily trade all the strikeouts, all the records, and all the acclaim for a couple of rings. He’s a Yankees fan, remember, and Yankees fans expect championships. But these aren’t separate acts. Everything Cole does is calibrated to improve the Yankees’ chances of spraying champagne; from the way he trains to the way he studies to the way he cuts out every distraction imaginable. The ability to get a strikeout when you need one -- or even just really want one -- is what makes an elite pitcher, and Gerrit Cole is an elite pitcher.

If chasing a strikeout increases the Yankees’ win expectancy in any given situation, then that’s what Cole will do. It’s the unselfish pursuit of individual achievements, a quest no different from what Aaron Judge achieves with every home run trot.

So, Cole now holds the record for strikeouts by a Yankees pitcher in a season, and he certainly deserves it, but no one will forget Guidry in the same way that no one will forget Roger Maris. Achievements don’t die with the records. Rather, it’s the passing of the records, the ties that bind generational legends across history, that best describes what it means to thrive as a New York Yankee.

“You set them, but somebody’s going to come along one day and break them,” Guidry says. “You always hope that you’re here so you can see it.”