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How worried should Nestor Cortes be of MLB’s pitching crackdown?

Will Nasty Nestor be forced to eliminate the parts of his game that make him so fun to watch?

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Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard how MLB is introducing a slate of new rules in the 2023 season, from bigger base sizes to shift restrictions to the institution of a pitch clock, as well as codifying recent rules changes including the automatic runner in extra innings. One aspect that I think caught many by surprise was the revelation that the league would be cracking down on balks and illegal pitches, prompting many to wonder how some of the pitchers with the most unique deliveries would be affected.

Of course, our minds immediately turned to Nestor Cortes.

Zach Buchanan of The Athletic provided a more detailed breakdown on how the new pitch clock rules in addition to how this renewed focus on enforcing the existing balk and illegal pitch rules could affect pitchers with nonconventional windups and deliveries. The increased scrutiny on balks and illegal pitches stems from the institution of the pitch clock, as the timing of when the pitch clock stops is tied to the initiation of the pitching motion, not when the pitcher becomes set. Therefore, any ambiguity in what constitutes said initiation becomes problematic.

This is particularly relevant for a guy like the Blue Jays’ Kevin Gausman, who bounces slightly on his lead leg a handful of times before entering his delivery when pitching out of the set. Any one of those bounces could be interpreted as the start of the delivery and thus constitutes a balk. As for the crackdown on illegal pitches, the rulebook limits a pitcher in the windup to taking one step forward and one step back with the lead leg. This would render the dance routine windup from Astros starter Luis Garcia illegal.

Naturally, it is fair to wonder how this would limit the varied timings, windups, and deliveries for which Nasty Nestor has become so well known pitching for the Yankees. For what it’s worth, Buchanan reassures that many of Cortes’ wacky deliveries are perfectly legal (with a co-sign from MLB executive Morgan Sword), so this increase in scrutiny shouldn’t hamper him the way it would guys like Gausman and Garcia. Still, I wanted to look at all the unique tricks that Cortes busts out on the mound to see what if anything he will have to ditch.

We’ll get the easy stuff out of the way first. While Cortes usually pitches out of a three-quarters arm slot, sometimes we see him drop down and deliver pitched from an almost sidearm angle. This is fully within the rules and does not fall under the scope of the league crackdown.

Next we have the Luis Tiant-esque hesitation in the pitching motion. Cortes loves to incorporate hitches and pauses to mess with the hitters’ timing mechanisms.

Since this concerns the pitching motion, it does fall under the purview of the crackdown; however, a reading of the rules reveals that such a move as the one above is still perfectly legal. Because Cortes is already in the pitching motion and has already picked up his lead leg, the pitch clock is stopped and it is not a balk.

Cortes also incorporates hesitation during his windup, often tapping his back foot repeatedly on the rubber before stepping forward with his lead leg.

As crazy as it seems, this is still considered legal. The illegal pitch rule comments only on the limitations to movement of the lead leg, so technically a pitcher is free to tap his rear leg as many times on the rubber as he pleases.

Finally, we have the one area where Cortes might run into trouble — the quick pitch.

The balk rule requires the pitcher to come completely set before initiating the pitching motion. While the above example would be considered legal, there have been some instances where Cortes is right on the border of not coming fully set, and he may find himself dinged for those occasions in the future.

While I understand that the introduction of the pitch clock requires the elimination of ambiguity about when a pitcher is beginning his motion or when he becomes fully set, I’ll admit I’m a little dismayed to see this crackdown put in place. It kind of stinks that they’re taking away that little bit of individuality from certain pitchers’ windups, and individuality is part of what makes the game great. Part of what gives each ballpark character is that no two parks share the same dimensions. The fact that two players of polar opposite body types — Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge — can finish one-two in MVP voting is proof positive that you don’t need a cookie-cutter approach to the game to have success.

Cortes has said how incorporating these unique elements into his game makes him feel like a kid out on the mound, making it up as he goes along. I would hate to see one of the most entertaining pitcher in the league feel discouraged from experimenting with new unique adaptations to his craft out of fear of being called for a balk or an illegal pitch.