Record these dates on your mobile phone’s calendar right now: July 7, 8, 28 and 29.
And, if you’re feeling ambitious, Oct. 20.
The first four mark the Subway Series, your scheduled opportunities to see whether the baseball calendar gods allow Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole, our city’s two aces, to face off for the first time in their careers.
And if those don’t align, would you settle for World Series Game 1?
“I think in an era where we see increasing usage in breaking stuff, they still pitch off their fastballs. They still have dominant fastballs, and they have that element of power that to me, puts fannies in the seats,” YES Network broadcaster David Cone, an ace of his time, said recently of deGrom and Cole. “If you’re a fan, you’re looking at the days they pitch, and you’re going to buy a ticket and go watch them.
“To me, that kind of draw in New York is something that really plays big.”
It feels big, too, doesn’t it? The Mets and Yankees are all in for 2020, and their No. 1 starters arguably best symbolize that mindset. The 31-year-old deGrom would be preparing for his walk year right now if he and the Mets hadn’t agreed, in March 2019, to a five-year, $137.5 million extension that takes him through 2023 (with an opt-out after 2022 and a team option for 2024). DeGrom immediately rewarded the Mets’ faith in him by winning a second straight National League Cy Young Award.
The Yankees, meanwhile, committed a record-setting, nine-year, $324 million contract in December to the 29-year-old free agent Cole, who placed second behind his Astros teammate Justin Verlander in last year’s American League Cy Young vote. That completed a pursuit that lasted more than a decade — with the Yankees selecting Cole in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft, only to see him choose UCLA over them.
At a time when openers and bullpenning have turned as common as a New York City parking ticket, deGrom and Cole stand out as horses (Cole’s 212 ¹/₃ regular-season innings last year ranked fourth and deGrom’s 204 were 10th) and blazers (Cole’s average fastball of 97.2 mph ranked second and deGrom’s 96.9 was third, among qualified pitchers, as per FanGraphs). Yet you need only eyeball them to appreciate their differences — that more than one way exists to skin an opponent.
Cole, at a listed 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, carries the more traditional pitcher’s build.
“In terms of more like a Roger Clemens-type,” Cone agreed, citing his former Yankees teammate. “Power body.”
Like Clemens, Cole has adjusted his repertoire with time. After a superb 2015 season with the Pirates, which placed him fourth in that season’s NL Cy Young vote, Cole dropped closer to league-average performances the subsequent two campaigns.
When the Astros acquired him from the Pirates for 2018, they urged him to throw his four-seam fastball less often in favor of his curveball and slider. And when he used the four-seamer, the Astros helped him generate more spin on it (through legal means, Cole has repeatedly insisted). These changes propelled him to his highest perch and hugest dollars.
“Great pitcher,” deGrom said of Cole. “The guy goes out there with really good stuff and competes. [He’s] fun to watch when you see him throw, and very impressive.”
The Mets’ ace added Cole’s contract was “well-deserved.”
Last season, Cole placed fifth in baseball with 97.1 percent “active spin” on his fastball (that’s the percentage of spin that contributes to the pitch’s movement) and second with 97.5 percent active spin on his changeup, as per MLB.com.
“I think stuff-wise, he’s able to create a lot of different shapes and different speeds in different zones that is not really predictable in the way he goes about it,” Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake said of Cole. “So he understands his strengths, and he understands what hitters are trying to do to him. He’s able to make adjustments because of how centered he is in his delivery.”
You can’t discuss Cole’s greatness, it appears, without invoking his intellectual buy-in.
Said Blake: “I think his focus on the things he can control at a really high level, like his intensity and detail that he gets to from day to day, doesn’t allow him to get too far away from center. He’s really in tune with his body, and that allows him to make really fine adjustments. Outside of the pure stuff, there’s a really high level of awareness for himself and the process to get himself to the highest version of him.
“I think his ability to make adjustments from pitch to pitch and throw to throw, just his level of detail in catch play, just doesn’t allow him to get too far from center, which is really critical.”
Like Cole, DeGrom stands at 6-4 … but he weighs in at 180 pounds. There’s no hiding from his college shortstop past. Why would he? It helps explain his effectiveness.
“DeGrom is deceptively athletic and very wiry, for lack of a better expression,” Cone said. “To me, the fluidity of deGrom through the release point generates so much speed. It’s almost imperceptible, unless you slow it down in slow motion, how much arm speed he generates. It’s pretty impressive, I think, and that shows his athleticism.”
He relies more on his slider than does Cole, throwing it 32 percent of the time, and deGrom throws a very effective changeup as well.
“His command of the extension side of the plate, I think, is something everybody admires,” Cole said of deGrom. “He’s constantly on the corner all day long. His location is top notch. His quality of spin and pitch deception is top notch. He’s been fun to watch for a long time. And he can hit.”
Interestingly, deGrom doesn’t rank anywhere near the league leaders when it comes to spin rates. He may have quality of spin, but not quantity. It doesn’t prevent him from being elite because: “He throws from a little bit lower slot, and the ball jumps on guys,” Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner explained. “And he uses that to his advantage.”
If deGrom doesn’t come across as being as garrulous or curious as Cole, he can go as deep intellectually as he did on his three career homers.
Added Hefner: “Jake’s one of the most focused individuals I’ve ever been around. … Very driven, knows what he wants. And he goes out and gets it.”
The best way to compare and contrast the two studs, naturally, would be to have them go head-to-head for the first time and beyond.
“If [he and I] have a chance to face up against each other, I think it will be a lot of fun,” deGrom said.
Keep those dates open. For now, ride the spring-training optimism and keep the entire week of the Fall Classic open. This is one party, one pitching clinic, you wouldn’t want to miss, and the buildup to it might be even better.
— with Mike Puma