In a season filled with frustration, the unexpected performance of Néstor Cortes Jr. has been a true bright spot. A minor-league signing who didn’t make his 2021 debut in the big leagues until the end of May, he has provided stability for the Yankees’ pitching staff while becoming a character who is easy for fans to rally behind. The team’s fate for 2021 might be up in the air, but when the Yankees plan out their 2022 rotation this offseason, Cortes will justifiably deserve legitimate consideration for a role.
Even with a so-so start at best during his last time out against Texas, there’s no denying that Cortes has taken the opportunity granted to him by injuries and underperformance to the Yankees’ starting rotation and run with it. His 1.08 WHIP is by far the lowest of his journeyman career, and is second among all starters who have appeared for New York this season. His hard-hit ball percentage of 35.3 percent is ahead of Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, and, oh, Gerrit Cole.
Being “clutch” is, of course, a nebulous concept, but Cortes has been successful in difficult situations. With runners in scoring position, opposing hitters are batting .143 with a measly .552 OPS (just a smidge worse than the disappointing 2021 edition of Mike Ford). In what FanGraphs considered “medium leverage” situations, he’s allowed a .183/.250/.303 line; in “high leverage” situations, he hasn’t allowed any baserunners at all. At a time of the season when Yankees fans may be desperate to see the team bear down in crucial situations, Cortes has proven he’s capable of that.
The major caveat with Cortes this season has been that he is prone to faltering late in ballgames (perhaps due in part to beginning 2021 as a reliever). The third time through the opposing team’s batting order, his ERA balloons to 6.94. However, with an offseason and a spring training to fully return to life as starter, one could hope his stats in this area to improve. Jameson Taillon also had struggles the third time through the order at the beginning of this season, which he lessened with time. His long layoff from pitching was absolutely certainly a factor in that. More repetitions could also help Cortes, as it did with Taillon.
Not only that, but with his mustache and Mario t-shirts Cortes at least seems like someone who is easy for fans to root for, unlike, say, Germán with his previous suspension for domestic violence. A team does not have to be “likeable” to win games and make the playoffs, but it could certainly help with fans’ patience when lean stretches inevitably crop up during the season, such as the Yankees are going through now. That keeps them buying tickets and merchandise, and keeps eyes on the TV when they’re playing. The front office, as with all teams, is certainly sensitive to those matters.
Ideally, the Yankees will have way more than five options for the starting rotation as they get to work next spring. A trade or free agent signing could certainly push Cortes out of the picture — if that’s an established starter with a strong track record, that would only be fair, and he should remain in the major league bullpen if that’s the case. But if the options for the back end remain muddled, Cortes should remain at the top of the list to continue providing solid innings for New York.