The significance of that date is now clear as Cole and the Houston Astros prepare for Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium: Although he has taken the mound 24 more times and thrown more than 160 additional innings, regular and postseason combined, that start against the White Sox remains the last time Cole was beaten.
Those facts — as well as Cole’s 18-0 record and 1.66 ERA in the nearly five months since, a stretch that includes two dominant victories over the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Division Series — strain the limits of credibility and history. Nobody wins 18 straight decisions in baseball in the same season, or at least nobody in more than a century, since Rube Marquard won 19 in a row for the 1912 New York Giants. Between May 23 and the end of the season, by contrast, Reynaldo López of the White Sox lost 11 times.
It is good to be the Astros right now, with the 6-foot-4 Cole, a 29-year-old right-hander, taking the mound in a series tied at one game apiece — and presumably on track to start a potential Game 7 at Houston’s Minute Maid Park five days later.
“We know he’s going to come out hot. We know he’s going to get his strikeouts. We know he’s going to set a tone — he’s intense,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “There’s no mistaking him in what his priority is, which is to get deep in the game and give us a chance to win. And he’s done that as much as anybody in baseball.”
It is also good to be Gerrit Cole, in the prime of his career, with a full arsenal of some of the most dastardly pitches in the game, and a free agent payday the likes of which the game may have never seen awaiting this winter. He is almost certain to become just the fifth pitcher to get a contract worth more than $200 million, and he could exceed David Price’s $217 million deal to become the highest-paid pitcher in history.
Cole’s dominance this season, his seventh in the majors, is difficult to overstate. His 13.82 strikeouts per nine innings is a record for qualified starters. His 326 strikeouts were the most since Randy Johnson in 2002. After July 12, the Astros never lost with him on the mound, going 13-0. In his first start against the Rays in the division series, he struck out 15 in 7⅔ innings and induced 33 swinging strikes, the most in a postseason game since pitch-level data became available.
“It looked like he aged out. Like, check his birth certificate. He looked like the kid pitching in Little League [who’s] too good for the league,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone joked of Cole’s performance against the Rays. “It’s hard [to face], but it’s also really fun.”
Asked how he managed to hit 100 mph on the radar gun with his 116th pitch of Game 2 against Tampa Bay, Cole answered matter-of-factly, “God.” When the gathered media chuckled, he added that, no, he was serious: It comes from a place beyond his human capacity. “I just try not to mess it up,” he said.
Cole’s fastball, with its “late life” or “rise” or “hop” — descriptors for the effect of its backspin, which makes the pitch appear to elevate as it nears the plate — may be the most devastating pitch in baseball. By pitch-values rankings on FanGraphs, it led the majors in runs saved with 36.2. The second best was teammate Justin Verlander’s slider at 33.4. This winter, Cole and Verlander are expected to finish 1-2, in whichever order, for the AL Cy Young Award.
Cole’s slider, change-up and curveball are similarly deadly, and as the Yankees well know, he can throw them all for strikes.
“Slider, curveball, change-up, heater — he always gets that first strike, either swinging or he’ll put one over the plate,” Yankees slugger Aaron Judge said. “That’s what I really love watching about Cole, especially — just how he’s able to go out and work the edges well with all his pitches and just getting that strike one. That’s huge, especially in the postseason.”
In his two starts against the Rays, he held their hitters to a .118/.167/.196 slash line (batting average/on-base/slugging), effectively turning every batter he faced into a pitcher at the plate (.128/.159/.163 in 2019, collectively). But the Yankees’ offense should be a vastly tougher test than that of the Rays; the Yankees led the majors in runs (943) and finished second to the Minnesota Twins with 306 homers.
Should the Yankees ultimately see their season unravel at Cole’s hands — they could still win the series without beating him, by taking Games 4, 5 and 6, but the margin for error is nil — it would be a doubly painful fall because they had two prime chances to acquire him but failed both times.
The first was in 2008, when Cole was coming out of Orange (Calif.) Lutheran High and the Yankees drafted him 28th overall, only to see him honor his commitment to UCLA. Three years later, the Pittsburgh Pirates made him the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft, signing him for $8 million. Then, in January 2018, the Yankees were in hot pursuit of Cole, whom the Pirates were trying to trade, only to see their offer lose out to that of the Astros — a development that still irks some in the Yankees organization who feel their offer was better.
Cole’s arrival in Houston that winter came at a low point for the pitcher — his signature two-seam fastball was getting crushed, leaving him with a career-worst 4.26 ERA in 2017, giving him the look of a classic victim of the launch-angle revolution that arose largely as a response to the predominance of sinkers such as Cole’s. But it came at a high point for the Astros, who had just won the franchise’s first World Series and were gaining a reputation for fixing wayward pitchers with an approach that relied heavily on data — helping maximize spin rates, for example — and common sense. The message essentially was: Throw your best pitches more and your worst pitches less, or not at all.
For Cole, that mostly meant ditching the two-seamer — which he threw 18.1 percent of the time in 2017, his final season in Pittsburgh, but less than 1 percent in 2019 with the Astros — in favor of the harder, higher four-seamer, and kicking up the velocity on his curve. Like many pitchers the Astros acquire, Cole has also displayed a significant increase in his spin rates, with his four-seamer, according to Statcast data, going from 2,163 rpm (with a swing-and-miss rate of 19.8 percent) in 2017 to 2,530 rpm (and a 37.6 percent swing-and-miss rate) in 2019.
“The key principle was using a lot of the data to discern, like, what is your strength,” Cole said. “It’s not like they were reinventing the wheel — they were just showing me what I did well and then allowed me just to attack.”
Having let Cole slip away twice already, the Yankees could have a third chance this winter, when he hits free agency for the first time. The Astros have made little effort so far to re-sign him, with owner Jim Crane acknowledging the luxury-tax threshold is an impediment and telling the Houston Chronicle: “We may make a run at it. We’re not sure yet.”
The extension the Astros gave to Verlander in the spring, as well as the July trade for Zack Greinke, were widely viewed as hedges on the potential loss of Cole this winter.
But the Yankees would have competition for Cole, whose potential availability on the open market would undoubtedly lead to a feeding frenzy that could push prices into uncharted territory for pitchers. The largest contract the Yankees have given a pitcher is their seven-year, $155 million deal with Masahiro Tanaka in 2014.
Having failed so far to acquire Cole, the most dominant pitcher on the planet at this moment, the Yankees’ best hope may be to beat him. But they may also find the former to be far easier — all that would take is money.