It’s easy to get bogged down in the negatives when a season is lost in such spectacular fashion. The 2021 campaign was a wash for the New York Yankees. We all know that already. Before the craziness of the offseason gets into full swing and we drive ourselves mad again trying to understand what this organization is doing, though, I thought that it’d be nice to remember that this season led to some positives, too.
When talking about surprises, you can take it in one of two ways: positive or negative. I very easily could’ve turned to any of the shocking disappointments we saw this season for content, but things have been a little negative around these parts lately, so I’m instead choosing to look on the bright side and highlight three genuinely surprising things that happened (in a good way!) this season. Spoiler alert: They all involve pitching.
3. Luis Gil looks close
Thanks, in part, to injuries, COVID-19 outbreaks, and poor performances, a number of young arms were called up to help the pitching staff. For the most part, they weren’t exactly great. Nick Nelson and Brooks Kriske were awful, Albert Abreu had good moments but his overall numbers are quite ugly, and Deivi García took a massive step (or two) back in Triple-A.
Luis Gil, though, separated himself from the pack after pitching to a 3.07 ERA, 4.40 FIP, and 11.66 K/9 across six starts. While he struggled with his command and control (his BB/9 was a brutal 5.83), he demonstrated exceptional poise for such a young player. It might just be me, but the 23-year-old kind of reminded me of a young Luis Severino out there. I suppose it helps when you have a flamethrower for an arm. While he might not be totally polished and could benefit from a bit more development, it’s looking like Gil could be a big part of this team’s future.
Author’s Note: I’d also like to give Stephen Ridings a quick shout-out here as well. Although he only had a cup of coffee in the Majors this season, he and his cannon of an arm appear to be someone to monitor as a bullpen option for 2022.
2. The pitching staff exceed expectations
Outside of unquestioned staff ace Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ rotation was a patchwork of question marks coming into this season. Behind Cole, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery, and Domingo Germán were slated to fill out the rotation despite the fact that the four of them had amassed just 265 total innings pitched since 2019.
On the other hand, the bullpen was anything but a question mark. Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Chad Green were once again expected to serve as the ‘pen’s anchors, with Lucas Luetge, Jonathan Loáisiga, Luis Cessa, Justin Wilson, and Darren O’Day expected to work the middle innings to great effect.
Despite multiple COVID-19 outbreaks, a massive (and needed) overhaul of the bullpen, and a multitude of injuries, however, the Yankees’ pitching staff somehow endured. In fact, one could say they even flourished. As a staff, the team finished sixth in ERA (3.76), fifth in ERA+ (115), fourth in K/9 (9.84), sixth in FIP (3.90), fourth in SIERA (3.81), and fourth in WAR (22.3). It’s a supreme credit to pitching coach Matt Blake, who was in his first full season on the job.
The pitching was the reason that the Yankees didn’t miss the playoffs for the first time in five years — not the vaunted offense. For all of the question marks that this staff faced entering the season, they were truly superb.
1. The emergence of Nestor Cortés Jr.
Any article about the biggest surprises this season would be incomplete without a section on everyone’s favourite mustachioed hero, Néstor Cortes Jr. Where do I even begin? Coming into this season, Cortes was a former 36th-round pick who had pitched to a 6.72 ERA and 5.37 FIP across 79 innings in 42 big league appearances. He accrued a WAR of -1.1. In fact, Cortes was so ineffective that at one point, the Baltimore Orioles gave up on him. The Orioles.
Somehow, some way, something just clicked for the 26-year-old this season. Cortes began the year as a non-roster invitee to spring training and spent April at the alternate training site before joining Triple-A Scranton for the majority of May. There was no reason to expect anything of the southpaw.
Injuries led to Cortes taking on a hybrid starter-bullpen role in the majors. Eventually, he forced the Yankees to make him a fixture in the starting rotation with starts like this one:
Cortes was nothing short of brilliant this year. In 93 innings, he pitched to a 2.90 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 9.97 K/9, an ungodly 85-percent left-on-base rate, and a 1.7 WAR. Despite the fact that he doesn’t throw an overpowering fastball and his off-speed stuff isn’t all that special, he made a habit out of carving up lineups all season long with a wonderful mix of pitches and arm angles. Cortes even gave us some incredible moments along the way.
In a season that was rife with disappointment, Cortes’ spot in the pitching staff was always sure to provide entertainment.