It’s hard to think of a better story for the Yankees in 2021 than Néstor Cortes Jr.
It would’ve been hard to imagine that back in 2019 — when Cortes was a spot starter/reliever putting up an ERA over five with the Yankees — that he would ever play a crucial role for a playoff bound team. Through his first three years in the bigs (2018 with the Orioles, ‘19 in New York, ‘20 with the Mariners), he was eminently hittable, putting up a 6.72 ERA and allowing over 11 hits per nine innings.
The Yankees signed Cortes as a minor league free agent back in January, and it seemed like he was chosen simply because he was a familiar face who would be a decent depth piece. Not only was he on the team in 2019; they had drafted him all the way back in 2013, before he briefly went to Baltimore as a Rule 5 draft pick.
Instead, Cortes became way more than just a depth guy. He became an important mid-rotation starter for a playoff team.
2021 Statistics: 22 games, 93.0 IP, 2.90 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 4.18 xFIP, 10.0 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 1.7 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Final pre-arbitration year
After starting the season in Triple-A, the Yankees called Cortes up on May 30th. It seemed a “Scranton Shuttle”-type move, as he came up a day after Justin Wilson hit the IL and Deivi García was sent down. Cortes made his first appearance of the season that day, allowing two runs (one earned) in 3.2 innings as part of a bullpen game after Michael King had started.
The Yankees kept him around, and a couple days later, he threw two scoreless innings against the Red Sox. By the end of June, Cortes suddenly had a 1.02 ERA in 17.2 innings, and he was tasked as the starter in one half of the July 4th doubleheader against the Mets.
Other than a brief stint on the COVID-IL and a bullpen appearance after he came off it, Cortes remained in the rotation from July on. It wasn’t a “best of a bad bunch situation,” either. He took his chance after some Yankees pitchers went down with injuries, and he ran with it. Of his 14 starts this season, only once did he allow four or more runs.
Cortes’ most impressive effort of the year probably came on August 15th, when he threw six innings of one-run ball against a good White Sox team. There was also the September 15th game, where he struck out a career-high 11 hitters. Even when he wasn’t at his best, he kept the Yankees in it more often than not. In the 14 games he started, they went 10-4.
As for exactly how Cortes did it, it’s hard to say exactly. His stuff doesn’t exactly scream good mid-rotation starter:
Cortes just didn’t allow a ton of hard contact. He’s never had dominating stuff, but this year, he managed to figure out what to do to work around that. Just watching him, you can tell that he’s not like the typical 2021 pitcher. The different arm angles, messing with hitters’ timing, it just seems different. At least this year, it worked perfectly.
After the season he had, Cortes will almost certainly be involved with the Yankees in some fashion in 2022. He’s still a season away from arbitration, so there’s no reason for the Yankees to cut bait on him. Whether or not he can continue to defy his peripherals remains to be seen, but even if he doesn’t, he gave us a fun time in 2021.