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Is Nestor Cortes For Real?

by Cary Greene

January 1, 2022

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We simply have to explore this topic:

Was 26 year-old lefty Nestor Cortes Jr for real this past season? He was a dominant pit-bull coming out of the bullpen for the first half of the season and then, he stepped into the Starting Rotation and did an admirable job. Cortes Jr seems to be tailor-made for pitching in Yankee Stadium, as his ERA at home was 2.53 compared to a respectable 3.28 on the road.

No one can deny that on the season, Cortes posted a 2.90 ERA in the rugged American League East, recording 103 strikeouts in 93 innings while holding opposing batters to a .216 batting average and a .273 OBP as he pounded the strike zone, throwing 65 percent of his pitches for strikes and striking out 10.0/9. Can he sustain these types of performances regularly? The Yankees only squeezed 93 total innings out of Cortes last year, which is unfortunate given how well he was performing. I thought he should have been used more as it certainly appeared that he was more than getting the job done.

I’ll happily break down the numbers in a moment, but using the eyeball test, it’s clear that Cortes comes right after hitters. He pounds the inside part of the plate when facing tough right-handed hitters who clearly share the same approach against Cortes, they look to jump on pitches on the inner half of the plate that are in the zone. This accounts for Cortes’ 1.4 HR/9 stat line, which is tolerable given his effectiveness. By and large, Cortes dispatches right-handed hitters efficiently, as evidenced by their combined .214 average against him last season. HIs only vulnerability appears to be that he will surrender an occasional long ball to right-handers.

Cortes doesn’t give in to right-handers either. He’ll nibble the inside part of the plate and if it means he walks a batter here or there, evidenced by his 2.4 BB/9 rate, so be it. He goes right after the next hitter. The bottom line is clear. Cortes suppresses runs and the batters who he walks are seldom permitted to score as he strands 85% of the runners who reach base against him.

What do the Yankees have in Nestor Cortes Jr?

Steamers is projecting significant regression for Cortes this season, speculating that his ERA will balloon from last seasons 2.90 to a 4.66. I’m not buying this. Cortes improved a lot last year and it started last winter. The average exit velocity off the bat of opposing hitters versus Cortes last season was 89 mph, which happens to the MLB average. The Barrel Percentage off Cortes was 7.4% last season, which is under the league average of 8%. His stuff appears to play.

Cortes is a left-handed fly ball pitcher and that plays nicely in Yankee stadium, it always has. Last season Cortes’ fly ball percentage was 51.5% and opposing hitters took the ball predominately to center field, 38.5% of the time. When we look at how hard opposing batters make contact off of Cortes, we seen that they mostly make “medium” contact – 53% of the time. Any way you slice these numbers, they play well in Yankee Stadium and many other ballparks as well. We’re talking about a pitcher who induces a tremendous number of lazy fly balls, strikes out 10 batters per 9 innings and who’s become a rather nasty lefty with the aforementioned very strong mound presence. He also clearly has an approach that he sticks with as he attacks lineups.

What changes did Cortes make in terms of pitch selection, as he went from a fringy nobody to a nasty lefty starter? Well, we’re looking at a four pitch starter at this point and Cortes does feature a hittable fastball which averages 91mph that he uses 47% of the time. It is this somewhat pedestrian pitch that Cortes has increased his usage of and he’s now coming right at hitters, mostly pounding the zone with this pitch. The fastball is getting him ahead in the count. Opponents look fastball in and try to jump on it if he leaves it in a smashable spot.

Any pitcher with a less than dominating fastball needs a solid Changeup and Cortes has that, as he’s capable of dropping an 83 mph Changeup at any time and in fact, he’s relying on his Changeup for strikes now and is countering opposing lineups that are looking for his fastball. Cortes doubles his usage of the Changeup last season.

Unfortunately for opponents, Cortes also features a wipeout, tightly wrapped 84 mph slider which he uses 24% of the time and he’s able to throw it for strikes. He’ll also use it as an out pitch and he’ll deliberately move it off the plate in attempts to get batters to go fishing This is a recipe for strikeouts and it also explains why opponents look for the fastball when facing Cortes.

Cortes used to lean heavily on his slider and he shied away from using his fastball enough to set it up, but this has changed and it’s a big reason I don’t buy into Steamer’s prediction that Cortes Jr will regress. He’s clearly changed his approach as he’s learned to pitch. He’s also featuring a 77 mph Curveball 20% of the time that he can absolutely locate for strikes and his release points on all pitches is very similar. This change in speeds is keeping opposing hitters off balance and it’s all working off of said fastball. The development of the Curveball has been a big key for Corets and he’s more than doubled his use of this secondary pitch. Because he can throw it for a strike, he will often lead with a Curve the second time through the lineup.

Thank goodness Brian Cashman offered Cortes a minor league deal last offseason. Cortes was actually drafted by the Yankees back in 2013, in the 36th round no less! What a find! Cashman lost Cortes to the Orioles in one of his famous Rule 5 Draft maneuvers and thankfully, the pitching starved Orioles sent him back to the Yankees after a mere 4 ⅔ innings!

Cortes made his Yankees debut in 2019 and he didn’t do too well in the bullpen, posting a 5.67 ERA and a 5.57 FIP over 33 games. The Yankees then decided to give up on Cortes again and they dealt him to the pitching starved Mariners for International Bonus Pool Money – which is almost akin to being traded for a box of crackerjacks and a Pepsi.

He didn’t fare much better with the Mariners in 2020, where he got knocked around pretty hard in only 7 ⅔ innings. Prior to the start of this past season, Cortes had a woe some 6.72 ERA in 79 Major League innings. That said, Cores was sharp in the Dominican Winter League last year and then he flashed dominating stuff in Scranton for the Yankees early this past season, which earned him a call up that he absolutely took advantage of!

Cortes Jr isn’t a free agent until 2026 and again, he will only be 27 years-old next season. I’m going to admit it now. I’ve peeled back the onion a bit in this article. His stuff plays. He made some adjustments and tweaked his pitch usage and he became a somewhat dominating starting pitcher. He succeeds by changing speeds, setting batters up with a well located but pedestrian fastball and suckering a good many with a wipeout slider. He pounds the zone, he gets ahead in the count and he keeps batters very off balance. Cortes fails when makes mistakes with his fastball location and MLB hitters are keen to this. Batters with fast hands will stay back on his off-speed pitches and jump on fastballs and this approach will yield some success as the league adjusts to Cortes.

Yet the fact remains, Cortes is effective and we could be looking at a mid rotation starter for years to come here. Will the Yankees finally see this and take full advantage or will they underutilize him again this coming season?

What do you think? Is Cortes Jr as legit as I am saying he is? Does he have a case to be firmly in the Yankee rotation this coming season? (my answers are yes, absolutely, to all of these questions obviously)….or, will Cortes Jr regress significantly this coming season, as Steamers predicts? (I answer no way to that one).

#NestorCortesJr

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