In mid-February, the entire Yankees universe collectively held its breath when it was reported that Nestor Cortes had a hamstring injury. Those are extremely tricky and have several grades: the most serious one would have knocked him out for well into the regular season.
Thankfully, it was a Grade 2 right hamstring strain and he should be ready for Opening Day. Already down Frankie Montas, the Yankees’ rotation couldn’t stomach seeing another of its members lose significant time.
2022 Stats: 158.1 IP, 2.44 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 0.92 WHIP, 9.27 K/9, 2.16 BB/9, 0.91 HR/9, 3.6 fWAR
2023 ZiPS Projections: 139 IP, 3.43 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 1.12 WHIP, 9.19 K/9, 2.40 BB/9, 1.10 HR/9, 2.7 fWAR
Everything is going according to the plan with Cortes, who faced hitters last week and also resumed running at roughly 90 percent. He is expected to appear in a Grapefruit League game soon and remains on track to be a member of the rotation when the team breaks camp.
If fully healthy, there is no reason to think the southpaw can’t be a successful pitcher in 2023. Enough with that narrative of “we can’t buy what he did last year” because he has been well-above average for two seasons in a row, with 2.90 and 2.44 ERA marks in 2021, and then a 3.78 and 3.13 FIP in 2022. He has already proven himself, but since he doesn’t throw upper-90 mph gas, some still don’t believe in him even though his xwOBA has gone down for two straight seasons:
Cortes is the real deal, though. He overcomes poor fastball velocity (91.8 mph on average last season) an extension (in the ninth percentile) by using several weapons at his disposal: elite command, an improved cutter, and deception.
Additionally, this may need to be said, too: Contrary to what some people believe, the new pitch clock likely won’t affect Cortes much, if at all, as he can work very quickly.
We can also credit Cortes’ improved fastball as one of the reasons why he was able to double down on his already good 2021 and deliver excellent results last season. Two years ago, his heater averaged 90.7 mph and yielded a .266 xwOBA and a 23.2 percent whiff rate. Those registers improved to 91.8 mph, .240 and 25.3 last campaign.
Cortes’ cutter, however, was his most improved pitch from 2021 to 2022. It had a .340 xwOBA against two seasons ago, but decreased all the way to .289 last year. He also increased its usage from 23.5 percent to 29.9 percent.
An effective “sweeper” (a hybrid between a curveball and a slider) gives Cortes a solid third pitch, and he completed his arsenal with the seldom-used but still effective changeup and sinker.
A varied repertoire, improved fastball and curveball, excellent command and control (just 2.16 BB/9 last year, a career-best) and a competitive nature are Cortes’ weapons to navigate another season of silencing critics. At this point, it’s just business for him.
Provided there are no ill effects from his hamstring strain, the lefty should be a solid mid-rotation starter for the Yankees behind aces Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodón.
Cortes posted a 3.6-fWAR season last year as a 27-year-old, and should be able to match or exceed that total if he remains in one piece this season. He is still in his prime and has shown he can reinvent himself and revamp his stuff whenever he has had to.
Adapt, and you will survive. Cortes has applied that to perfection since 2021 and is now one of the top southpaws in the American League. There is no reason for that to change this upcoming season.