When the Yankees called up Nestor Cortes last year, it seemed like he was destined to be part of their “Scranton Shuttle” grouping of end of the bullpen relievers who they send back and forth whenever a fresh arm is needed. After 17.2 good outings of the bullpen, he got promoted into spot start duty, and spent most of the rest of the season in the rotation.
Flash-forward to this year, and he’s retained that rotation spot and gotten off to a really good start this year as well, having allowed two runs in 15.2 innings and even threw an immaculate inning. While it’s maybe a stretch to say that he’ll be a Cy Young contender at the end of the season, he’s become a genuinely important part of the Yankees’ roster. Why that’s so notable is that is was completely unexpected when they reacquired him.
Cortes’ second stint as a Yankee the past two seasons have seen him put up 3.6 Baseball Reference WAR so far. That’s taken his career bWAR total to 2.8, meaning his previous MLB seasons had him in the red by a decent amount. Before 2021, his “best” season in terms of ERA was 5.67 in 66.2 innings in 2019 with the Yankees.
With Cortes’ success over the last two years somewhat coming out of nowhere, let’s look at some other instances where a Yankee pitcher had a good run that couldn’t have been predicted going of the rest of their careers.
Maybe the poster boy for that type of run is Aaron Small and his 2005 season with the Yankees.
Small had a mostly unremarkable career before 2005, playing for five teams from 1994-04, including two separate gaps (1999-2001 and 2003) where he didn’t play a major league game. He was worth 1.2 WAR for the Athletics in 1997 after a solid season as a long reliever, but in total before joining the Yankees in ‘05, he had put up -0.4 WAR.
After starting the year in the minors and eventually getting called up due to injuries, Small came up huge for the Yankees, famously putting up a 10-0 record, including the first and only complete game shutout of his career. His 3.20 ERA in 76 innings saw him put up a 2.7 WAR. The Yankees re-signed Small for 2006, but he struggled and ended up DFAed before June ended. He never played in the majors again after that season and ended his career with a 1.6 bWAR, meaning his 2005 stretch kept him from finishing his career in the negatives.
Perhaps the weirdest career of this type belongs to Jim Coates. In five career seasons with the Yankees, he had two separate runs that vastly out-produced the rest of his career.
In 100.1 innings in 1959, he put up a 2.87 ERA (127 ERA+) and collected 1.3 WAR. Two years later, he had a 0.8 WAR season. The other seven seasons of his career, he was worth -2.3 on the mound, and if you factor in his hitting, he finished with a -0.4 career WAR.
Here is the weird thing, Coates was an All-Star in one year in his career. However, it was in neither year of his aforementioned genuinely good years. In fact, in came right in the middle of the two in 1960, when he put up a -0.6 WAR season. The reason he was an All-Star that year was almost certainly down to his win-loss record as he finished with the best winning percentage in the league that year. However, he only had an 84 ERA+ in 1960 and was greatly helped by the fact that on average he got nearly eight runs of support per game from the offense.
Despite being an All-Star that year, he is also remembered in that season for his performance in Game 7 of the World Series. While he’s not the one that allowed Bill Mazeroski’s series-winning, walk-off home run, Coates was one of two pitchers who combined to allow five eighth inning runs. Coates himself allowed the two-run home run to Hal Smith, which according to Championship Win Probability Added, is the most consequential play of all time, and increased the Pirates’ championship hopes by 63.62%.
In 148.2 innings across the 1971-72 seasons, Fred Beene was a genuinely very good pitcher for the Yankees. In ‘72 especially, his 219 ERA+ in 91 innings helped the team get within 6.5 games of first in the AL East, the closest they had gotten in a pennant race since they had won it in 1964. Over those two years, he put up 3.7 WAR. Those two seasons managed to keep him in the positives as he ended his career at 1.1 after -1.1 and -1.5 years in his final two seasons.
Maybe five years from now when Nestor Cortes is on his third All-Star appearance, we won’t think of him “coming out of nowhere” and he’ll have long outgrown this list as him being good is just the norm. However, for now, he’s still someone whose current run completely outpaces the rest of their career.