Gerrit Cole aims to improve upon HR-heavy 2022 campaign

TAMPA — Gerrit Cole’s 2022 season was a practice in extremes.

The Yankees’ ace set a franchise-record with 257 strikeouts while also leading the American League by allowing 33 home runs. The latter often overshadowed the former during a given start and, along the way, raised his ERA to 3.50 — one of Cole’s few stats that were actually more in the middle ground among qualified starters.

The result was a quality, if not spectacular, season that leaves the 32-year-old Cole some room for improvement entering his fourth season of a nine-year, $324 million contract — which always sets the bar high for him, especially in pinstripes.

“I thought it was a really strong season,” Cole said Thursday at George M. Steinbrenner Field, where pitchers and catchers held their first official workout of spring training. “I think every year you try to evaluate what you can do better and sometimes there are things that are not quite as obvious as leading the league in home runs, but sometimes it’s leading the league in home runs. So you gotta be out there and pitch quite a bit if you’re going to lead the league in home runs.”

Cole threw 200 ²/₃ innings last year — the fifth time in his career he has eclipsed the 200-inning mark — and then 18 ¹/₃ more across three postseason starts.

Gerrit Cole

But across his 33 regular-season starts, he was often burned by the long ball. There are few ideal times to give up a home run, but Cole seemed to allow many of his at especially inopportune times. Fifteen of them gave the other team a lead, 12 came in the fifth inning or later, 14 occurred with two outs and 15 came with at least one runner on base.

Cole pointed out that his then-Astros teammate Justin Verlander got tagged for 36 home runs during his AL Cy Young-winning season in 2019 (when Cole finished second), wondering how many questions he got about the high home run tally. Of course, 28 of the home runs Verlander gave up that year were solo shots, which helped his ERA finish nearly a full run lower (2.58) than Cole’s 3.50 last season.

“Some pitches were good pitches, some pitches were bad pitches, some were bad sequences,” Cole said. “The solo home runs — it’s the late ones that kind of flip the game a little bit or the ones where there are two or three runners on base that kind of sting the most.

“But part of it’s my style. I don’t walk very many guys, I throw strikes with all five of my pitches. Part of what makes me great is my low walk rate. So there’s a pretty good chance that when you face me, I’m going to be in the strike zone. If you get a good pitch to hit and you put a really good swing on it, sometimes those balls can go out.”

Now, for the first time in his Yankees career, Cole enters the season with a legitimate No. 2 starter behind him in Carlos Rodon. The team hopes its rotation will be one of its biggest strengths as it sets out in pursuit of a different October outcome than the one it suffered last fall, when the Yankees were swept — or “waxed,” as Cole put it — by the Astros in the ALCS.

“Anytime you get waxed, it doesn’t feel good, whether you’re going to the salon or you’re on the baseball field,” Cole said with a laugh.

Still, manager Aaron Boone came away from the postseason encouraged by how Cole performed in it after facing questions entering the ALDS about whether Nestor Cortes should have been the Game 1 starter instead. Cole twice dominated the Guardians in the ALDS before allowing three runs in five innings in his one start against the Astros.

“He’s so good, there’s always another level he can go to to have that Cy Young season where he finishes that off,” Boone said. “He really bounced back and continued to solidify himself as one of the real aces in the sport with how he was able to deal with adversity last year.”