On Saturday afternoon, Nestor Cortes gave up a fifth-inning home run to Cleveland Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor. If you missed the last couple seasons of Yankee baseball and had just tuned in for this at-bat, you’d be forgiven for assuming that this was an unsurprising outcome. Cortes’ first pitch to Naylor was an 87 mph four-seamer. The slider Naylor took deep was at the knees, but just 77 mph, and got enough plate for Naylor to get around on it and send it far. An ace, Cortes appears not.
But Naylor’s long fly was the first and only hit Cortes would allow against Cleveland. He’d exit the outing after 6.1 impressive frames, with his season ERA sitting at 1.15, the two runs cashed in by Naylor the only runs he’s allowed in 2022. In 15.2 innings, Cortes has fanned 25 batters and walked three, the best split in baseball.
Cortes comes off a stunning 2021 campaign in which he helped stabilize the Yankee rotation during the second half of the year. On July 4th, 2021, Cortes made his first start of the year, and since that date, his 2.65 ERA ranks seventh among pitchers with at least 100 innings, just ahead of Brandon Woodruff and Lance Lynn. His strikeout-minus-walk rate over that span ranks 10th, on par with Kevin Gausman and 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray. Lest you believe he’s the product of good fortune, Statcast ranks him 11th-best by expected outcomes during that timeframe.
Cortes’ evolution from forgotten man to rotation stalwart is one of the best, most unexpected Yankees stories in recent memory. He’s done it by reworking himself as a pitcher, and ensuring that opposing hitters don’t know what to expect when facing him. In doing so, he’s given us a surprising thrill ride, but one that crucially may not end any time soon.
The difficulty, from a hitter’s perspective, in facing a pitcher like Cortes does not stem from overpowering stuff. Cortes has worked hard to improve his fitness and mechanics, boosting his four-seam velocity two ticks in the process, but even so, the pitch only clocks in at about 90.5 mph.
What the pitch lacks in heat it makes up for in life. Despite his lack of oomph, Cortes can generate buckets of whiffs with his four-seamer because it doesn’t behave the way batters expect it to. Statcast estimates Cortes’ four-seamer comes with 20 percent less drop than a typical heater, and puts his fastball spin rate in the 83rd percentile. That life creates the “rising” action seen from great fastballs. We expect gravity to pull the baseball down, but it doesn’t — the pitch appears to rise, and befuddled opponents swing under and through the ball:
Cortes pairs that heater expertly with his now trademark cutter, the usage of which he’s upped in 2022. The cutter and four-seamer come out of Cortes’ hand similarly, but diverge from there. While Cortes’ four-seamer has little horizontal movement, his cutter has some of the most in the game, flying toward his glove side.
Couple those divergent movement profiles with Cortes’ quality command, and you have a recipe for confused hitters. Imagine digging in as a right-handed hitter knowing that Cortes could paint the inside corner with his slicing cutter, or pinpoint the outside corner with his four-seamer (this, without mentioning Cortes’ useful slider):
That challenge must be key to Cortes’ success. He cannot blow pitches by hitters, so he must surprise them, keep them in the dark from what’s coming in order to defeat them. MLB hitters can crush 90 mph heaters if they know when and where to expect them. Cortes keeps them guessing, and in the process, keeps them whiffing, like Jose Ramirez did here after Cortes tossed in one of his tricky windups:
Cortes essentially pitches like a card shark. A good poker player mixes in bluffs with their strong hands, ensuring any opponent cannot discern exactly what they’re holding. Much like Daniel Negreanu can have any two cards at any time, Cortes can throw any pitch, anywhere, and you won’t know what’s coming until it’s too late.
Of course, while Cortes has confounded hitters the last year, he’s perhaps confounded those on the sidelines even more. Prior to 2021, Cortes owned a 6.72 ERA in the big leagues. His previous stint in pinstripes resulted in a 5.67 ERA in 66.2 innings. Yankees fans had little reason to expect Cortes to even crack the rotation at any point when he returned on a minor league deal prior to 2021.
Cortes’ run is that of an underdog. For whatever reason, we as observers enjoy a peculiar thrill when an unexpected performer or team steps up in ways no one thought possible. The most fun Yankee campaigns of recent vintage stand as 2017 and 2019, the former a season when the Yankees shocked the league in emerging as contenders, and 2019 the year the “Next Man Up” brigade propelled the club.
Elsewhere in sports, the allure of the underdog is downright intoxicating. Linsanity is arguably the most electrifying New York sports story of this century. Every March, legions of sports fans salivate at the thought of bracket-busting upsets. Many viewers instinctively root for whichever team is losing the game they’re watching, in hopes that the tortoise will reel in the hare.
But there’s something about Cortes’ story that could make it different, and special. We all love an underdog, yes, but in most cases, the underdog is an underdog for a reason: they’re worse. 11-seeded NCAA teams generally receive those seeds because they’re not as good at basketball as Kentucky and Kansas. Few foresaw, say, Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl a decade ago because Joe Flacco was a mediocre quarterback. David is weaker than Goliath.
Cortes is attempting to write the story of an underdog turned into an overdog, rather than one of a Cinderella run that fizzles out in the end. No, Cortes doesn’t physically fit the bill of the top starter, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be one. In mastering the things he does well, and deploying the tools he does have at his disposal so effectively, Cortes is finding a way to excel. He’s not getting lucky; he’s making the best hitters on the planet look silly, regardless of whether his heater cracks 90.
That Cortes doesn’t look like a flash in the pan gets at the heart of what makes a story like this hit home. It’s an example of what can be done with persistence, and execution. The story of a typical underdog, like Flacco and the Ravens, or any NCAA team that pulls off a first-round shocker before getting blown out in the second, suggests that any one of us could get lucky once. A story like Cortes’ suggests that any one of us can find true change within ourselves.
If Cortes can dedicate himself to training his body more effectively, refine his skills, and come out on the other side giving Jose Ramirez a sword, then who’s to say what any one of us has the potential to do? The narrative of the mid-career vet setting aside past failures, finding improvement through hard work and focus, is in this case about a left-handed starter, but it could be about any person anywhere. To me, this is why the best underdog tales connect so well with so many people. To believe in someone like Cortes’ ability to actually be a good MLB pitcher is to believe in the fundamental human ability to grow.
No, we don’t know whether Cortes’ spectacular run can continue. He still must prove, every time he goes to the mound, that he belongs with the best players in the game. But over the last season, one of the best is what Cortes has been. He’s done it through guile on the mound, and preparation off of it. That Cortes has come this far at all is a testament to his dedication to his craft, and a reminder to the rest of us what is possible.