Gerrit Cole can bring the AL MVP Award to the Yankees

TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 24: Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees delivers a pitch in the first inning during the spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Steinbrenner Field on February 24, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 24: Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees delivers a pitch in the first inning during the spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Steinbrenner Field on February 24, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

Gerrit Cole heads into 2020 season as a leading MVP candidate

Gerrit Cole grew up dreaming of putting on the Yankees pinstripes, of pitching under the bright lights at Yankee Stadium, of the Bleacher Creatures in right-field chanting his name. He won’t get that this season, but the right-hander did achieve his dream back in December when he signed a record $324 million contract with his childhood team.

Cole joins the Yankees coming off two seasons in Houston during which he established himself as one of the most dominant starting pitchers in baseball. He led the American League with a 2.50 ERA last season, finishing second to Astros teammate Justin Verlander in Cy Young Award voting. His 326 strikeouts were the most by a right-hander since Nolan Ryan in 1977. He struck out 13.8 batters per nine innings, the most in history.

But, for all his success on the mound, Cole and the Astros never did win the World Series in either of those two years. Cole was warming up in the bullpen in the seventh inning of Game 7 against the Nationals last year, preparing to come in and close out the Astros second title in three years. He remained there as the Nationals came back to stun the Astros at home in Minute Maid Park. The memory of that defeat still haunted him nearly two months later when he donned a Yankees uniform for the first time.

“I came eight outs away from getting a ring. I felt like I could see the light under the door and then it was slammed shut in our face,” he said at his introductory press conference. “I’m as hungry as ever to finish that journey, finish that challenge, and in my opinion, there will be no better place to do it than in New York.”

New York Yankees: Can Gerrit Cole win the AL MVP in 2020?

The fact that Cole is even more motivated heading into 2020 bodes ill for the teams that will have to face him in the AL East. Verlander is the last starting pitcher to win AL MVP, back in 2011. No other starter has won the award over the last 30 seasons. Cole, already inspired by pitching for his favorite team and still hungry for that elusive World Series ring, can end that drought this year.

The shortened 60-game season works in Cole’s favor. The Yankees won’t begin playing until July 23, then have a mad dash to fit in 60 games over the next 67 days. That’s the part of the schedule Cole was at his best last year. From the end of July to the final game of the season in 2019, Cole went 9-0 in 11 starts with a 1.55 ERA. Opponents batted just .151 against him in that span. He struck out 14.4 per nine innings and ran off a streak of double-digit strikeouts in his final nine starts, the longest in history. He also joined Pedro Martinez as the only pitchers to strike out at least 14 in three straight games.

He gave up more than two earned runs in a start just once over the seasons’ last two months. Only Jack Flaherty of the Cardinals and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom had a lower ERA after July 24. Clayton Kershaw in 2015 is the only other starter over the last decade to strike out more batters (116) over the last two months of the season than Cole’s 114, and Kershaw did it in 24 more innings. Cole’s batting average against and WHIP in those months was bettered only by Flaherty and Jake Arrieta in 2015.

With the condensed schedule, a third of the Yankees games this season will come against either the Boston Red Sox or the Tampa Bay Rays. Cole has made four starts against the Rays over the last two seasons and has struck out 13 per nine innings, although he didn’t pick up the victory in any of those games. He has a 2.50 ERA in three starts against the Red Sox since 2018. He and the Yankees will also play the Baltimore Orioles 10 times; in his last start against Baltimore, Cole struck out 14 in just seven innings. His 1.38 career ERA against the Orioles is his lowest against any team that has faced him at least twice.

Manager Aaron Boone won’t feel like he has to extend Cole deep into games. The Yankees feature a deep bullpen, with Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton setting up closer Aroldis Chapman. Ottavino and Britton combined for a 1.90 ERA last season; only two other pitchers have more saves over the last two seasons than the hard-throwing Chapman. If Cole leaves a game with the lead, he can be assured the bullpen will keep it and allow him to pick up the victory.

The last three starting pitchers to win AL MVP—Verlander in 2011, Roger Clemens in 1986, and Vida Blue in 1971—each won 24 games. Verlander and Clemens won around 70 percent of their starts in those respective years. Cole won’t get the opportunity to rack up that many wins; in a 60-game season, he’ll likely only get around 12 starts. But if he collects eight or nine victories and leads the league in ERA as he did last season, he’ll be right in the MVP conversation at the end of the year.

Cole got a second opportunity to join the Yankees this past offseason. He was a first-round pick by the Yankees out of high school in 2008 but passed them up to attend UCLA. Presented with another chance to join his favorite team, he didn’t pass it up. “Because it was my dream,” he said when asked why he signed with the Yankees. He’s where he’s always wanted to be, and he won’t disappoint.

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