As the Yankees put together their 2022 rotation, they felt confident enough in their in-house candidates (all of them), that they didn’t feel the need to make any significant additions in that specific group. Whether the decision was right is up for debate, but the Yankees’ actions made it clear where they stand on the matter.
One of those guys in which the Yanks have 100 percent faith is Nestor Cortes Jr. His ascent from depth arm to rotation stalwart in 2021 was so unexpected that, to this day, many fans and observers doubt he has staying power. That’s understandable; he wasn’t a hot prospect, and failed miserably in the bigs a few times before maximizing his skills last year, with the help of the Yankees’ staff of coaches.
In 2021, the left-hander hurled 93 innings, with a rock-solid 2.90 ERA and a 3.78 FIP, so even if he may have over-performed some of his peripherals, he was a perfectly fine mid-rotation starter. Cortés knows he has doubters, but he is willing to put in the work to silence them. It’s clear that he worked over the offseason to keep the level he showed in 2021, or even improve it.
He has made just one start in 2022, but it was against perhaps the best offense in baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays, and it was impressive. In 4.1 frames, the southpaw didn’t allow any runs or walks. The Jays could only muster three hits and struck out five times against the resourceful Cortés.
We can’t use one start to judge anybody, but he left a couple of interesting takeaways to keep an eye on going forward. For starters, his velocity on nearly all his pitches is slightly up in comparison to last season (all velo and spin numbers are courtesy of Baseball Savant):
Four-seamer: 91.4 mph vs. TOR, 90.7 mph in 2021
Cutter: 85.8 mph vs. TOR, 85.4 mph in 2021
Slider: 76 mph vs. TOR, 77.4 mph in 2021
Sinker: 90.6 mph vs. TOR, 90.3 mph in 2021
Changeup: 84 mph vs. TOR, 83 mph in 2021
He doesn’t have overpowering velocity, but that kind of bump, if he can sustain it over a full campaign, will have a small positive impact. In addition to the obvious command gains he made last season, he knows how to change speeds, and he messes with hitters’ timing. He made the evolution from thrower to pitcher, in every sense of the word, since the start of 2021.
Another point worth discussing is his increase in spin rates in his start against the Jays, considering last season:
Four-seamer: 2324 rpm vs. TOR, 2223 rpm in 2021
Cutter: 2438 rpm vs. TOR, 2351 rpm in 2021
Slider: 2522 rpm vs. TOR, 2450 rpm in 2021
Sinker: 2317 rpm vs. TOR, 2218 rpm in 2021
Changeup: 1648 rpm vs. TOR, 1430 rpm in 2021
For some reason, Cortés’ fastball is incredibly difficult to square up, and it was his best pitch against the Jays with a 33.3 whiff rate and a .130 xwOBA. Big league hitters haven’t been able to decipher it since the start of last season.
Of course, Cortés still has a long way to go to prove he belongs at the top, or in the middle of the Yankees’ rotation for the long-term. But it looks like he has the tools to prove the doubters wrong. If he settles in as a 3.70-ERA type of pitcher for the next few years, the Yankees would welcome that outcome with open arms.
‘Nasty Nestor’ seems ready to prove last season was no fluke. It was only one game, but it’s a fine sign that he dominated a good team in his first start, his velocity on all pitches is slightly up, and his spin rates are up as well. Just because he wasn’t a heralded prospect doesn’t mean he can’t, from this point on, and pitch like an effective major league starter. And he’s doing just that, even if he or his stuff aren’t flashy.