No team’s history compares with the New York Yankees’, but most of the great legends of the past have been position players. They’re the Bronx Bombers, after all, which isn’t the kind of name you give to a pitching-forward franchise. With apologies to Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry, and Andy Pettitte, they’ve never had a long-term starting pitcher equivalent of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. There’s no Walter Johnson or Bob Gibson in Yankee lore. Their all-time pitching WAR leader is Mariano Rivera with 56.3. This is the lowest WAR leader of any of the original eight American League clubs. They’re also one of only two franchises with a reliever atop their rankings (San Diego Padres, Trevor Hoffman).
The fruit is hanging somewhat low for Gerrit Cole, who is inarguably one of the top five pitchers in MLB right now. He’s in the second year of a contract that will most likely either be a five or 10-year deal, depending on his opt-out clause. Assuming he stays healthy and productive deep into his Yankee tenure, here are a handful of team records he could rewrite.
Strikeouts, single-season: 1978 Ron Guidry – 248
Something would have to go horrifically wrong for Cole not to break this record. In 2018 and 2019 with the Houston Astros, he fanned 276 and 326 hitters. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he shut down 94 opponents over 12 starts, which would have put him on pace for 251 over 32 starts. The 2021 season is just about at the quarter pole, and he has 78 heading into this evening’s scheduled start, putting him on pace for 312.
To break Guidry’s record this year, he will need to average 7.13 strikeouts per start, assuming he has 24 starts remaining. So far, he’s whiffing 9.75 per outing. He should blaze past the record this year, probably sometime in August. If not, he ought to be expected to top 248 in any given season through 2024, after which he may exercise his opt-out. Sorry, Gator, it was a good run.
Strikeouts, career: Andy Pettitte – 2,020
Career records are much more complicated to project than single-season records. It’s impossible to guess how gracefully Cole will decline and if he’ll stay healthy. Through his first 20 starts in pinstripes, he has 172 strikeouts, which is probably a record all by itself. It’s a great beginning, but he’s only 8.5 percent of the way to Pettitte’s record.
Obviously, this is impossible if he opts out, so we must assume he’ll stick around through 2029. With 94 strikeouts in the books in 2020, he would need to average 214.1 per year from 2021-2029. The front half of the contract should be no problem. He ought to average well over 250 per year if healthy. In the back half, he can knock Pettitte off as long as he stays in the starting rotation, as opposed to the IL or the bullpen.
WAR, career: Mariano Rivera – 56.3
Given modern pitcher usage, this won’t be easy for Cole. He’s one of the few starters in MLB who is consistently allowed to face a lineup more than twice in any given start. He can reach 200 innings per year, but he won’t exceed that threshold by much. There will probably also come a time when the Yankees no longer want him throwing 100+ pitches per appearance.
From 2018-2021, he’s averaging 6.8 WAR per 162 games, and this year he’s on pace for 10.0. He will need to average a little more than 6.0 WAR from 2021-2029 to surpass Rivera. It’s a very tall order, which will rely on several consecutive Cy Young-caliber seasons followed by a bunch more All-Star-caliber years in his mid-to-late 30s. For context, Max Scherzer has 37.6 WAR in his seven years with the Washington Nationals. He was the unquestioned best pitcher in baseball for most of that time and he’s still very good today, but he’s nowhere near Rivera’s mark.
Strikeouts per walk, single-season: 2015 Michael Pineda – 7.43
Cole hasn’t walked a batter in more than a month. His 2021 K:BB ratio is 26.00. Never mind the Yankee record, the MLB record is 11.63 by Phil Hughes in 2014 with the Minnesota Twins. This kind of record is tricky, though. Because it’s a ratio, one or two wild innings can undo everything.
Pineda’s record should be well within reach. As for the MLB mark, Cole is probably chasing Corbin Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers more than Hughes, as he has 58 strikeouts and only one walk this season.
ERA, single-season: 1943 Spud Chandler – 1.64
Perhaps Chandler’s record deserves something of an asterisk given how many regular MLB players were serving abroad in World War II. Be that as it may, his mark is the best in team history, just barely ahead of Deadball Era hurlers Russ Ford and Carl Mays (1.65 each in 1910 and 1919, respectively).
Cole’s ERA in 2021 is 1.37, which is probably unsustainably low. His previous career-best ERA is 2.50, which led the AL in 2019. Baseball is different in 2021, however. Offense is down significantly across the league, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see more than one pitcher finish with a sub-2.00 ERA. If this truly is a “Year of the Pitcher,” our protagonist has as good a chance as anyone. Dipping under Chandler’s limbo stick is going to require an awful lot of scoreless outings.
Strikeouts per nine innings, single-season: 2020 Gerrit Cole – 11.6
Here’s a Yankee record Cole already owns. Assuming you count last season’s statistics, and there’s no good reason not to do so, his 11.6 K/9 last year set a new Yankee record. He surpassed James Paxton’s 11.1 K/9 bar set in 2019. That was actually a step down from Cole’s two previous years with the Astros in which he led the AL with 12.4 and 13.8 K/9.
So far in 2021, he’s averaging 13.3 K/9. Even if he eases off the gas pedal a little, he could still break his own Yankee record. If he fails this year, he has a great shot in 2022, 2023, and 2024. That’s the beauty of having an ace on a long-term contract. If everything goes according to plan, we will get to witness him pitch better over an extended stay than any other Yankee ever. By the time he’s done, the record books should reflect that as well.