Yankees ace Gerrit Cole appears to be on track for Opening Day
Going by the calendar, Gerrit Cole is right on schedule to be the Yankees’ Opening Day starter when the Red Sox visit the Bronx on April 7.
Cole threw 22 pitches Friday during a live batting practice session at Steinbrenner Field, whiffing Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge.
But on the brink of his third season with the Yankees after signing that nine-year, $324 million megadeal, it’s become difficult for Cole to identify what qualifies as normal anymore. We all lost track of normal in 2020 when COVID-19 flipped the world upside down, and between COVID and lockouts, Cole has yet to experience a normal spring training since he first put on pinstripes.
Even now, with MLB’s pandemic-related protocols peeled back considerably, Cole finds himself racing through a severely truncated spring training and has only three weeks to build up to a 100-pitch range by Opening Day.
Judging by what we witnessed Friday, Cole appears to be on track, painting the zone (18 strikes/four balls) as Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo produced the only at-bats that resulted in decent contact out of the seven batters he faced. The assumption is Cole will be on the mound for April 7.
"That’s what I have in mind," he said. "But Aaron [Boone] just wants to keep everything fluid. He loves fluidness, so he’s going to keep it fluid as long as he can. I think mostly to temper expectations and let himself kind of switch things around if need be towards the end."
From here, Cole will be feeling things out as he goes along, like every March since 2020, when teams navigated through two spring trainings three months apart. While the typical baseball routines have been anything but, Cole is adapting to the new normal.
"I’ve had three weird ones," he said. "I guess that’s par for the course for the past three years. So you just try to keep an open mind and don’t get ahead of yourself.
"It’s a bit easier as you get older, not having to try to make the team. Some of these guys on the bubble are probably tempted to rush a little more and try to impress. I’m fortunate that I’ve had to go through these wonky starts [to the season] while being established."
Not that any of this has been easy. Things got particularly uncomfortable for Cole last season when he wound up in the crosshairs of MLB’s sticky-stuff policing, and the public thermostat got turned up when Josh Donaldson — who became a teammate Sunday — called him out by name. People who never heard the term "spin rate" previously were scouring data sites after each of his starts and attributing any dips to the ban on sticky goo such as Spider Tack.
Cole initially struggled during that time. Over a six-start span, coinciding with MLB’s crackdown, he had a 5.24 ERA and was interrogated nightly about the potential impact of the anti-goo measures.
Looking back, Cole suggested Friday that the sudden rule enforcement made it harder for pitchers to adapt on the fly. Now everyone gets to start with what you could say is a clean slate along with a substance-free baseball.
"We now know what we’re going into," Cole said. "And I think that just does a lot for people’s preparation in the offseason. Not having to make an adjustment midseason, there’s more certainty in that aspect."
MLB had talked about developing an approved substance for pitchers to use rather than the outlawed home-brewed concoctions, as well as working on methods to make baseballs more tacky out of the box. But Cole said none of that has been introduced to date, and the subject came up only once during a December bargaining session between MLB and the Players Association.
"It’s probably on the back burner," Cole said. "Not really a focal point right now."
After Friday’s live BP session, Cole was messing around with a bat near the on-deck circle, taking some lefty swings (he actually hits righthanded). That obviously won’t come into play this season, with the addition of the universal DH, and Cole personally was sad to see it go because he enjoyed his trips to the plate. He did say, however, that the decision to have the DH in both leagues is better for the sport overall.
"I know quite a bit of pitchers that really struggled in the box," Cole said. "So the health and safety aspect of it, I think the clubs are more comfortable with, most of the pitchers are more comfortable with. Look, it’s not my favorite thing, but the positives outweigh the negatives."
All Cole has to worry about now is getting on the Bronx mound in three weeks. And that’s plenty.