At-Bat of the Week is back, and its cousin, Sequence of the Week is here! While my friend Esteban Rivera gives credit every week to a Yankees hitter who put on a brilliant display at the plate the week before, I’ll be doing the same for Yankees pitchers. There aren’t many pitchers in the game more fun to break down than Nasty Nestor Cortes, so why don’t we begin with a snapshot from his solid season debut a few days ago.
Let’s join him in the top of the second of the Yankees’ 8-1 win against the Phillies on Monday, where he’s facing notorious lefty-killer Nick Castellanos to lead off the inning. Castellanos is off to rough start this season, but he’s still no friend in the batter’s box, to the point that, if I had to guess, Cortes would probably take a mulligan on this sequence-opening fastball:
At just a hair under 90 mph (rounded up for the TV radar gun), that’s a pretty juicy pitch. But hey, sometimes you get away with one! Maybe Castellanos was taking all the way, maybe he was looking for something else. In any case, 0-1 is better than 1-0, and when Cortes is at his best, he’s getting 0-1.
Now that he’s ahead in the count, Cortes has a little room to work. Although he mixes his pitches up more against righties than lefties, he still throws either his four-seam fastball or his mid-to-high-80s cutter over 70 percent of the time when he’s at the platoon disadvantage. But to Castellanos, who has a career 131 wRC+ against southpaws (106 versus righthanders), he’s going to be a little bit less predictable, opting for the curveball that Baseball Savant now classifies as a sweeper. With a strike in hand, he plays it safe, attempting to go through the back door and nip the outside corner. Perhaps still a little spooked by his opening pitch, though, he misses wide.
Worth the effort! That pitch gets enough side-to-side movement that a hitter is rarely ever going to swing at it, and it’s virtually an automatic strike if he can hit the outer part of the plate.
Nevertheless, the count now even again, Cortes decided he wasn’t going to mess around again, returning to the four-seamer with Jose Trevino setting the target up and in on Castellanos’ hands. Cortes misses low, but gets away with it.
Perhaps Castellanos opted to once again lay off because Cortes gets a lot of pure backspin — and therefore a lot of rise — on his fastball, meaning a hitter is probably going to read that pitch as being lower in the zone (or even out of it) than it actually was. That may have been a factor, but that’s also not his sweet spot: Castellanos didn’t offer at inside fastballs super frequently in 2022.
Now he’s got the hitter in a bind. With his wide arsenal and array of timing tricks, Cortes is one of the toughest two-strike at-bats in the league. Instead of changing things up, though, he and Trevino decide to try the exact same thing twice. Cortes throws his fastball to virtually the exact same location, but this time, Castellanos manages to fight it off, even if it clearly wasn’t the pitch he was hoping to see.
It’s pretty likely that Cortes wasn’t expecting to get a whiff on that pitch, but he probably knows that Castellanos doesn’t like going there and won’t be waiting to turn and do damage on it. Best-case scenario, he gets a called strike three, worst case, it’s ball two or a foul like the one that actually happened. And now, having shown him two fastballs in a row — and three out of four in this sequence — Cortes can play off it, pulling his rarely-used changeup out of his bag of tricks to try to pull the string, knowing that Castellanos is likely looking for something middle- or outer-third:
And he gets SO close to pulling that string! SO close! Castellanos doesn’t have outstanding plate discipline, and Cortes executed the pitch perfectly, but a good hitter does good hitter things sometimes.
Where next, with the count once again even? Back to the fastball, of course! Go back for a sec and note the velocity sequence on the three fastballs we’ve seen so far: 89.6 mph, 91.7 mph, then 92.3 mph. Now, watch this one:
94! That ball was nowhere near where Cortes and Trevino wanted it, but it didn’t matter: After taking and barely fouling off 92 mph fastballs in the same spot and then seeing a fading changeup on the outer half, there simply wasn’t any way Castellanos was going to turn on 94 mph on the inside black in time to get anything out of it. If he hadn’t swung, it would have been strike three anyway. If he made contact, it probably would have been great contact.
Nestor Cortes doesn’t have the filthiest stuff on the planet, nor does he have its best command. But he has enough other things going for him that he can still completely perplex the best hitters in the game with some regularity. Here’s to seeing a few more of those at-bats in these pages before the season ends!