DETROIT — Gerrit Cole is built up. The Yankees ace has tried out his cutter and worked on using his fastball lower in the zone. Through the first two starts of the season, Cole has looked like a pitcher still trying to find his comfort zone.
Tuesday night, the Yankees need him to be their ace whether he’s ready or not. Coming off losing a series to the Orioles, the Yankees have an offense that has been inconsistent at best and a bullpen that has been pitching high leverage innings almost every night.
The Bombers have grand designs of a great season and to get there they need an ace. They need the Gerrit Cole they signed on for the next seven years to lead them back to the World Series after a 13-year drought.
After a lockout-shortened spring training, 28 days in which Cole only made two Grapefruit League starts, the 31-year-old said Sunday he felt like he would be at the end of a regular spring training now.
“I feel a little bit more in the swing of things in regards to things like game atmosphere,” Cole said of his first two starts. “Obviously faced two really good clubs. Not that Detroit isn’t a good club.”
Cole will find out about the Tigers, one of the teams he did face this spring, on Tuesday night. The Red Sox and the Blue Jays hurt him with home runs. Rafael Devers homered off Cole on Opening Day and a red-hot Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit two of his three homers off Cole in his last start.
“I mean, hanging a slider kind of stinks,” Cole said. “A high fastball never was a good pitch and the other one to Vlad … it was a good pitch, so I think just being efficient so that solo home runs don’t hurt us. Maybe in a situation where you have a hitter like that with a guy on base, try to stay in an area where he can’t slug it.”
Through his first two games, Cole has the highest barrel percentage (14.8) of his career and the highest expected slugging rate (.555) and is tied for the second lowest strikeout rate of his career (23.1). His first pitch strike percentage is down 28.3 points and his first pitch swing percentage is also down slightly. He goes into Tuesday night’s game with an ugly 5.59 ERA.
Still, it’s too early to push the panic button.
“He looks fine,” one American League scout said. “He just looks good, not dominant, not like he did two years ago. But he looks like a good pitcher two starts into the season.”
Cole added a cutter to his repertoire, a pitch he threw in college. He’s increased the use of his slider and after developing a reputation for delivering a deadly fastball high in the zone, Cole has been throwing his four-seam fastball lower in the strike zone so far this season.
Cole said that he heads into Tuesday night’s start — in what will be tough cold conditions at Comerica Park — feeling good and feels like he is where he wants to be at this point in the year.
“I just keep trying to find it, a good delivery. So that fastball down and away can be a strength, although we got probably more left-handers this week certainly than last week,” Cole said. “But if I can just hit those corners with the fastball that can help us get ahead and help us keep leverage throughout the count. So just trying to sharpen that up.”
Cole is not just trying to turn the page on his first two starts of the season, but also on last season.
It was a strange season for Cole. He came out early in 2021 as the best pitcher in the league and then became the poster boy for pitchers using illegal sticky stuff on the balls in June when MLB decided to enforce their own rules more stringently. He adjusted and regained control of his season, only to catch COVID after the All-Star break. He got back on track and then whether it was a tight hamstring or the workload (181.1 innings pitched after just 73 in 2020), Cole went into the AL Wild Card game with a 6.35 ERA over his last four starts.
But perhaps the lasting memory that most will have of Cole’s 2021 season is him being taunted as he walked off the mound at Fenway Park last October, having put the Yankees on the path to losing in the win-or-go-home Wild Card game.
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