The Yankees did not sign Max Scherzer after the 2014 season. They had reacted to missing the playoffs in 2013 by investing nearly a half-a-billion-dollars in Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka. Alex Rodriguez’s salary was coming back on the books after a one-year suspension.
So, even though the Yankees had missed the postseason for a second straight year, Hal Steinbrenner refused to approve the kind of outlay it would take to land Scherzer. The right-hander ultimately signed with Washington for seven years at $210 million (with deferrals).
It proved one of the best free-agent signings in history. Scherzer finished in the top five for the NL Cy Young in six of his seven seasons with the Nationals, won it twice and was the ace of the only champion in franchise history in 2019.
Scherzer even proved valuable on the way out. He was sent to the Dodgers, in a package with Trea Turner, to land what the Nationals hope will be cornerstone pieces in their rebuilding, catcher Keibert Ruiz and starter Josiah Gray.
In a way, the Yankees need Gerrit Cole to be their Scherzer. Cole began this season with seven years remaining on his contract (at $252 million), and the Yankees have to hope he stays as consistently healthy and dominant with age as Scherzer has.
The past four seasons for the duo have had lots of similarities. From 2018-21, Cole held his opponents to a slash line of .201/.256/.355 for a .611 OPS compared to Scherzer’s .205/.258/.353 for a .611 OPS. The near tie favors Cole since he pitched exclusively in a DH league. But Scherzer breaks any ties since he was doing that from ages 33-36 (Cole was 27-30), and his Nationals beat Cole’s Astros in that 2019 World Series.
They are both in New York now: Cole owns the record for most money ever guaranteed a starter at $324 million on his nine-year deal; Scherzer owns the record for most money per year given to any player at $43.3 million on his three-year, $130 million package.
Cole has finished fourth and second for the AL Cy Young in his two seasons. Yet there is this sense of falling short. Is it pitching poorly against the Red Sox in the wild-card game last year (and against Boston in particular)? Is it becoming a face (the face?) of the sticky substance ban? There are similarities between the sticky substance issue and steroids — scores of players were cheating, but the ones who were succeeding (statistically and financially) ended up as the biggest targets.
Cole is a brilliant pitcher in both senses of the term: He is outstanding and smart about his craft. He has added a cutter this year that should serve him well now and as he ages.
Scherzer is a brilliant pitcher, too, in all ways. He incorporated a cutter into his repertoire in his early 30s as part of his evolution. According to Statcast data, Scherzer had thrown it a career-high 11.8 percent of the time through his first four Mets starts.
Having Cole and Scherzer share the New York stage for a few years should prove captivating, and this is where I begin my New York-New York matchups. Yes, I will be watching long term to see if Cole ages as well as Scherzer. But for 2022, I am eyeing which one will finish with the lower ERA — a fairer barometer in 2022 with a universal DH. Scherzer had a 1.80 ERA through four starts. Cole had a 4.00 ERA going into his fifth start Saturday night in Kansas City.
Aaron Judge vs. Pete Alonso: Who will hit more homers?
Judge set the rookie homer record in 2017 with 52. Alonso broke it in 2019 with 53. Coming into this season, Alonso had homered in 6.6 percent of his career plate appearances, Judge 6.4 percent.
As with Cole/Scherzer, I do have longer fascination, too: If you had to bet who would finish their career with more homers, who would you take? Alonso, who has 110 early in his age-27 season or Judge who has 164 early in his age-30 campaign? Judge went into the weekend leading the 2022 race 5-3.
Aroldis Chapman vs. Edwin Diaz: Who will have the higher strikeout percentage?
We could have gone with saves. But consider that in major league history (minimum 350 appearances), Chapman is second all-time in strikeout percentage at 41 percent and Diaz is fourth at 38.8 percent (for those keeping score at home, Craig Kimbrel is first and Dellin Betances is fourth).
Diaz was at 44.7 percent in 2022 after striking out the side Friday night to complete the Mets’ no-hitter of the Phillies. Chapman was at 35.5 percent. Both have a lot at stake with how they perform, since both will be free agents after the season — as will Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen, who is fifth all-time in strikeout percentage.
DJ LeMahieu vs. Jeff McNeil: Who will have the higher batting average?
Ah, you remember batting average, right? So nice to have two guys in town who can use a whole field and hit their way onto base. LeMahieu and McNeill both went into Saturday as .301 career hitters. There are just nine active players with at least 1,500 career plate appearances and a .300 average: LeMahieu, McNeil, Jose Altuve, Charlie Blackmon, Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Mike Trout, Trea Turner and Joey Votto.
LeMahieu and McNeil both had down years in 2021. They are back — LeMahieu went into the weekend hitting .324 in 2022, McNeil .344.
Joey Gallo vs. Robinson Cano: Who will stay with their New York team longer?
It could be that both will last the full season. Gallo will be a free agent afterward, while Cano still has another guaranteed $24 million due in 2023 (the Mets are responsible for $20.5 million). But the early signs are not great.
Gallo was hitting .153, striking out 43.3 percent of the time, not showing what is touted as elite defense and sporting -0.3 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement through Friday. Cano was hitting .195 with one extra-base hit, limited (perhaps worse) defensive value and a -0.4 WAR.
Will the Yankees ever concede Gallo is just not built for New York and accept that the value in return will not be great, but get the Sonny Gray of hitters out of town? The Mets will be on the clock first. Barring injury, they will have to remove a position player from the roster by Monday at noon when rosters must be reduced from 28 to 26. Cano is — at minimum — in the discussion to go if Steve Cohen is willing to eat about $38 million.
In these New York versus New York contests, one answer may be arriving quickly.
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