In the wake of a season like the one we just watched, I hate to be a beacon of optimism. Yet here I am nonetheless, about to talk about Nestor Cortes Jr. to tell you the same thing I told you about Carlos Rodón last week: Everything might be okay, actually.
I’d understand anybody who still feels cynical at this point, because I’m a results-oriented person, and the results simply weren’t there in 2023, for Cortes or the Yankees. Recency bias is strong, and despite his All-Star caliber 2021-22, Cortes will enter next spring in the minds of many as a 4.97 ERA pitcher, as he was in ‘23, until proven otherwise. I think he can prove otherwise.
One key similarity between Rodón and Cortes is that both of them dealt with preseason injuries and interruptions to their ramp-up schedule. Cortes’s strained hamstring wasn’t as severe as Rodón’s back woes, but he still didn’t have the benefit of a normal spring ramp-up to the season, or the intense game action of the World Baseball Classic, throwing just 11.2 IP over three appearances in March before hopping straight into the regular season rotation. That’s important for the same reason it was important for Rodón. Rather than just saying it off the bat, though, let’s take the roundabout way there.
The first thing you need to know is that by some broad measures, Cortes’s 4.97 ERA was plain unlucky. His ERA- was 119, 19 percent worse than league average, but his FIP- checks in at 104, just 4 percent worse than average. His .291 BABIP was a hair below league average, but above his typical rates, and as a weak contact merchant, he might be likely to have a lower baseline BABIP than your average pitcher. Baseball Savant was even more bullish on his bad luck, giving him a 3.69 xERA, an ERA/xERA gap that was one of the largest in the league.
That doesn’t mean it was all luck. Cortes also let up a .360 xwOBA on contact, a 43-point increase over 2022, so there’s no doubt hitters were squaring the ball up better, although it’s not much off his 2021 rate, either. Still, on the pitch level, there’s a different story, as his cutter (.363 xwOBA) and sweeper (.352 xwOBA) were clearly worse, and not by a small amount, either. If Cortes is going to get back to anything close to his former level, that’s going to need fixing. The question then becomes, of course, how does that happen?
One hint comes in the fact that also like Rodón, the properties of Cortes’s pitches hardly changed at all this year, despite the drastic downturn in effectiveness. Velocity? Same. Spin rate? Same. Spin direction? Same. Release points? Same. Approach angles? Same. The only difference? Location. The limited sample size in 2023 skews heat maps a little bit, but it’s clear that Cortes wasn’t pounding the locations where he has success with the same consistency as he was in 2021 and 2022.
Oh yikes, yeah, that probably explains it. The combination of that with the 1.3 percent bump in walk rate seems to be telling us that worse command was a pretty substantial culprit in his woes.
The thing about a downturn in command is that it often coincides with a downturn in health. Mechanical inconsistency stems from physical inconsistency and overcompensation. Like Rodón, Cortes may have been healthy enough to pitch, but the fact that they both wound up re-injured after their initial return to the mound suggests they never quite got right after their delayed starts to the year. There was speculation during the season that the new pace-of-play rules were causing Cortes to lose stamina earlier than we’re used to, as was evidenced by his repeated difficulties from the fifth inning on, which is when he gave up the bulk of his runs. I can’t speak to that part, but in combination with the fact that his ramp-up to the season was first early, then delayed, it seems quite plausible that the poorer control stemmed from fatigue.
Fortunately, Cortes isn’t a grizzled veteran with a zillion miles on his arm. He’ll be 29 in 2024, and with a full offseason and then some to recover from the shoulder strain that ended his season, he should enter next season with a clean bill of health. Rotator cuff and shoulder issues in general are quite scary, and can easily cause a pitcher to lose their mechanics, so it would be a bad idea to promise anything. If he is healthy, though, the stuff should be more or less the same, and if the stuff is more or less the same, it’s reasonable to expect at least a little bit of a luck bump. If the stuff is more or less the same and the command takes a step forward again with full health, Cortes still projects as a very solid #2 or #3 starter. It’s far from a given that the health and command will be there, but I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
So, there’s your dose of optimism for the week, warranted or not. When he’s on, Cortes is one of the most fun pitchers in the game to watch work, and a return to form would be good for everyone. We’ll have to wait and see whether he can do it, but either way, there’s little evidence that he’s actually that much of a different pitcher than he was before. I suspect that with a year in which pretty much everything went wrong finally behind us, the results will follow.