The Yankees’ $324 Million Question: Can Gerrit Cole Stay This Good?

Soon after he signed the largest contract ever given to a pitcher, Gerrit Cole was in Hawaii with his wife, Amy, for the wedding of a former college teammate. Cole’s cellphone rang one day with a number he didn’t recognize. He answered it anyway.

After hearing, “Hey, this is Reggie Jackson,” Cole pulled the phone away from his ear for a second and uttered an expletive in delight. One of the biggest stars from the franchise he adored growing up — and now belonged to — was calling to congratulate him.

And when Cole arrived at the team’s spring training facility in Tampa, Fla., this year, he still couldn’t believe that Jackson, a Hall of Famer and a Yankees special adviser, was roaming the same grounds as he was.

“I try to act cool,” Cole, 29, said during a wide-ranging interview in March.

Since December, Cole, one of the best pitchers in baseball, has been, essentially, a kid in a candy store. He was not nervous about his first start in spring training in February, but he was in a casual game of catch with Andy Pettitte, the former Yankees pitcher who also serves as a special adviser. He called it “surreal” when Willie Randolph, the team’s former star player and coach, gave him a fist bump after a preseason appearance because Cole’s father, who was raised in Syracuse, N.Y., and passed on his Yankees fandom to his son, had long admired the second baseman.

Always a sponge of baseball strategy, Cole picked his teammate Justin Verlander’s brain on harnessing his fastball and Dallas Keuchel’s to better understand how to fool opposing batters with perceived balls and strikes. Opponents hit .166 against Cole’s four-seam fastball, the lowest average in the major leagues among starting pitchers in 2019.

“It’s something impressive,” catcher Gary Sanchez said. “If you see it high in the zone, it keeps going. It’s not like it comes in high and then drops.”

Cole’s two seasons in Houston were the best of his career. In 2019, he was 20-5 with a 2.50 E.R.A. and 326 strikeouts over 212 innings, and earned a win over the Yankees in the American League Championship Series on the way to a World Series defeat to the Nationals. He finished second to Verlander for the A.L. Cy Young Award.

Cole said he can get even better, without specifying exactly how.

“You see this with most great players: They’re never really satisfied and always kind of scratching, ‘Where can I get a little bit better or where can I make little improvements?’” Manager Aaron Boone said. “With him, you really notice that.”

It is partly because of that drive and intellect that Matt Blake, the Yankees’ new pitching coach, said he believed Cole would buck the aging curve of most players in baseball.

“He’s not a one-trick pony where once the fastball velocity goes, he’s not viable anymore,” Blake said. “He’s going to age well because he knows how to shape the ball, and he’s very understanding of what the greats have done and how they have evolved.”

Signs of Cole’s rigorous attention to detail have been obvious since he signed with the Yankees. The day after a spring training game in March, he talked to Sanchez about pitching strategies, mimicking batters’ swings and plotting attacks on a hand-drawn strike zone. When a teammate has been throwing a live batting practice, Cole is often watching nearby. And although he has no reason to bat this season, he has been in the hitting coach Marcus Thames’s ear.

“Gerrit likes to talk hitting,” Thames said. “He’s so cerebral, so he’ll come ask me.”

Cole knows people will question the wisdom of his nine-figure contract. In response, he rattled off a list of success stories of top starting pitchers on large contracts, including Max Scherzer (two Cy Young Awards and the 2019 World Series title), Jon Lester (2016 World Series title) and Verlander (a Cy Young Award and the 2017 World Series title).

Cole brushed aside the notion that the Yankees are hoping for their return to pay off in his early years while writing off the later years as an inevitable drop-off, as is sometimes the case with contracts as long as his.

“They don’t really pay me for my opinion,” Cole said. “They pay me for my work. And I can promise you I will always work. Everyone else is entitled to their opinions, but I’m here to be as best I can, help contribute to this clubhouse atmosphere as best I can and prepare as best I can. I’m ready to do this.”

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