New York Yankees’ left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. has been a revelation in the rotation during the last two seasons. In 2021, he had a 2.90 ERA in 93 frames, and even though many analysts and fans didn’t think he could repeat that kind of performance, he has managed to do it again in 2022: he earned his first All-Star berth with a 2.63 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 95.2 innings.
Cortes bounced between the Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles and the Seattle Mariners in the last few years as a mediocre swingman. However, in 2021, everything changed for him. Thanks to the Yanks’ resources and coaching staff, he is now one of the best pitchers in the junior circuit.
One of the men behind his transformation, Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake, sat down with FanGraphs’ David Laurila and discussed Cortes’ breakout.
“When he first started going last year, the league didn’t really know who he was. I mean, they knew of Nestor, but they hadn’t necessarily seen this version of him, where there’s a little bit more velocity [and] the fastball has kind of a true riding profile, one that’s a little bit closer to cut than run. And then the cutter off of that creates a really tough visual for hitters to identify. He’d also added the sweeper slider to be able to slow guys down and steal some strikes.
“Now that he’s gone through the back half of last year and the first half of this year… his game plan is probably a little more limited than your traditional starter, by default. He’s really good at executing a smaller game plan, but I think the league is starting to take note. It’s really on us, as a group, to decide, ‘Do you continue to hammer down on your particular strength, trying to power through other teams game planning for your fastball and cutter, or do you start to move into different areas, add other pitches?’ Basically, does he need to add some variables, some wrinkles, without getting away from what makes him Nestor? That’s the crux of his development now.”
The Yankees optimized Cortes’ stuff
The Yankees’ pitching mastermind then detailed a bit more about Cortes’ evolution stuff-wise. If he is getting better results, it’s because his stuff is decidedly better than it was in the past.
“He was throwing a two-seam. He was throwing a softer, more run-oriented four-seam. The cutter wasn’t thrown as hard. The slider didn’t have as much spin; he was throwing more of a curveball. When we bore down on his profiles, we kind of said, ‘These are the best versions, what we want to get to more often.’ All of a sudden, he was giving us more consistently high-quality reps [with pitches] that are harder to put in play or hit hard.
Deception plays a role, too. “I think the hard-to-quantify is just the deception component. There are some teams out there doing it better than others, and would say that Nestor is one of the more deceptive pitchers in the league. That’s in terms of how his arm stroke works behind his body, how hard it is to see the ball out of his hand, how to decipher if it’s a fastball or cutter because they stay together so long.”
Overall, the Yankees have a lot of reasons to believe Cortes is legit. He has done it for two seasons in a row, and he earned a place among the game’s stars.