Néstor Cortes Jr. has been a member of the Yankees since 2013, except for a couple months in Baltimore (2018) and a shortened season in Seattle (2020). In all these years, he couldn’t secure a spot in New York’s staff. The former 36th-round pick simply wasn’t good enough.
In 2021, however, Cortes looks much, much better. His control and command are both dramatically improved, and he uses deception, five different offerings, quick pitches, several windups, and every surprise in his bag of tricks to succeed.
That’s the key word. To this point, Cortes has succeeded, even though he had to settle for a minor-league contract in the offseason with only a non-roster invitation to spring training. He had no guarantees of making any impact, but in 16 games (8 starts) this season since being recalled at the end of June, he has a 2.77 ERA, 64 strikeouts, and a 1.09 WHIP in 61.2 frames. Per whiff rate, Cortes is thriving without a truly elite pitch, but he’s more than met the challenge of the job with five good, usable ones.
How so? Well, the left-hander throws a four-seam fastball (43.2 percent of the time), a slider (22 percent), a curveball (21.6 percent), a changeup (10 percent), and a sinker (3.2 percent). Each and every one of those pitches has a whiff rate no lower than 21 percent, but no higher than 24.7 percent. They’re all good enough to make hitters look foolish:
Cortes has so many pitches, angles, deliveries, and tricks, that he is very difficult to square up, evidenced by his 78th-percentile hard-hit rate. And even though none of those pitches misses bats at an elite rate, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. In fact, three of them have an expected wOBA — or xwOBA — below .300.
Cortes uses his fastball the most, and it’s been extremely effective, with a .165 batting average against and a .221 wOBA. It isn’t fluky, as his xwOBA is .226. He is commanding it very well, and he has been doing so all season long. As Jesse noted the other day, it’s been one of the best pitches for the Yankees in 2021.
While ERA (2.77), FIP (3.58), and Statcast’s expected ERA (2.87 xERA) love Cortes, other run prevention metrics such as expected FIP (4.35 xFIP), and Skill Interactive ERA (3.98 SIERA) only like him. Either way, he has been a breath of fresh air for a Yankees’ staff that has been decimated by injuries and COVID-19 all year long.
Cortes won’t wow you with otherworldly strikeout rates, even though his current 25.6-percent mark is in the 63rd percentile. However, Cortes really thrives in preventing hard contact. As previously noted, his hard-hit rate is in good territory in comparison with the rest of the league, but consider this: his xwOBA is in the 90th percentile, his xBA (expected batting average against) is in the 87th percentile, his xSLG (expected slugging percentage) is in the 91st percentile, and his 4.8-percent barrel rate is in the top 10 of the league.
Simply put, when hitters make contact on Cortés, they don’t inflict much damage. He has a .308 expected wOBA on contact, or xwOBAcon, a number that ranks him in the 90th percentile in MLB.
Cortés is basically thriving with mediocre fastball velocity (90.4 mph on average, in the 14th percentile), without a pitch with more than 25-percent whiff rate, and without elite spin or chase rates. It’s truly baffling, and it makes you wonder whether this is sustainable for the rest of his career. That’s debatable, at least to this extent, but for now in 2021, the Yankees are enjoying the ride.