Hello and welcome back to Connor’s Corner, a column where I discuss a standout performance in professional sports and that player’s journey from high school to the professional level. Baseball is back and has been nothing short of spectacular. The Tampa Bay Rays are setting the league on fire, and Aaron Judge picked up right where he left off last year when he broke the single-season American League home run record. However, this past week, the star-studded performance came from Judge’s New York teammate: Gerrit Cole.
This season so far has been Cole’s show. In four starts, the California native is 4-0 with 28.1 IP, a 0.95 ERA and 10.1 K/9. While these numbers are impressive, the real highlight came last Sunday against Minnesota; Cole threw a 109 pitch two-hit, 10-strikeout performance. He was on no-hit watch until the fifth inning when Donovan Solano singled on a 2-2 slider. This performance cemented Cole as the American League Player of the Week. He led the AL in innings pitched with 16, only yielding seven hits, two earned runs, three walks and 13 strikeouts. Sunday was Cole’s seventh career complete game and his fourth such shutout.
Before the fame and fortune, the Yankee attended Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California. As a senior, Cole was ranked 17th among Baseball America’s top-200 pre-draft prospects and arguably the top high school prospect. That same season, Cole earned a 0.46 ERA, with 121 strikeouts and even notched a save. Cole didn’t only get it done at the mound; he was a threat at the dish, hitting .310 with seven long balls and 25 RBI. He posted a 1.21 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 29 innings as a junior. Cole was a three-year starter and played so well that the Yankees drafted him in the first round of the 2008 MLB Draft. However, Cole elected to attend UCLA.
As a freshman, the Bruin starter was excellent, setting UCLA’s freshman single-season record with 104 strikeouts. Cole was ranked second among Pac-10 pitchers in opponent batting average, fourth in strikeouts and ninth in innings pitched. Next season was the same news for the future world series champion; he was ranked third in the nation in strikeouts, which helped him acquire an 11-4 record and a 3.37 ERA. At this point, he was touted as one of the best prospects and reinforced that notion in his final season with a 3.31 ERA while allowing one run or less in seven of his 16 starts. When it was all said and done, the future Pirate finished with a 3.38 ERA, 376 strikeouts and a career record of 21-20 — indicative of not only the stiff competition Cole faced as a pitcher, but the level of play his fellow hitters had to face. For this reason, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Cole No. 1 overall.
Cole broke into the league as a solid starter, posting a 3.22 ERA with Pittsburgh in his rookie season, and made two playoff starts that season, going 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA. However, his efforts weren’t good enough, as they fell short to the Cardinals. Cole faced some struggles too; the Pirate ace struggled in 2017, posting a career-high 4.26 ERA. Interestingly enough, Cole set 196 hitters down on strikes that season. After this campaign, Pittsburgh traded Cole to the Houston Astros, where he became arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
Cole never had an ERA over three in Space City, and in 2019 struck out 326 hitters: his best feat to date and tied for the best in Astros history. This record is all the more impressive considering the man he tied with is arguably the greatest pitcher ever, Nolan Ryan, who pitched nine seasons for the Astros. Cole won a World Series in Houston. However, that was not without controversy; when Cole and the Astros won the 2017 World Series, they were implicated in the infamous “trash can” scandal. According to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, in 2017, the Astros’ video replay room was used mid-game to learn and decode the pitches called for by the catchers. In 2018, Houston banged on a trash can to relay pitch types. It could be said that Cole and that team benefited from this system, and in turn, helped them win a World Series.
However, when Cole came to the Bronx, he denied involvement, saying, “I didn’t see anything. I’ve heard everything you guys have written about and I’ve read it, but I did not see anything illegal in any way.” Undoubtedly, many Yankee and Dodger fans heard this and didn’t believe a word Cole said as they found it hard to believe he had no idea this was going on. As a Yankee, Cole hasn’t done much; he only made it as far as the ALCS once, and in that instance, he pitched poorly, not to mention his disaster in 2021 against the Boston Red Sox in the wildcard game. In 2022, Cole found success in the Bronx by breaking Ron Guidry’s single season strikeout record of 248.
While it’s early, Cole is pitching like the best pitcher in baseball so far. Many fans will be quick to comment and say pitchers like Sandy Alcántara, Dylan Cease or Julio Urías are better than him. Statistically though, all of them have been outperformed by Cole. Jacob deGrom currently holds an ERA above four and is frequently injured. Conversely, Cole has been durable. He has posted at least 200 innings in four of the last five seasons, not counting the shortened season. Cole is in his prime. This is great for the Yankees, who are looking to return to championship glory and need their ace to be on top of his game. And so far, he has been stellar.