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Nestor Cortes and the third-time-through-the-order conundrum

Investigating one potential source of the lefty’s woes.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Nestor Cortes’ struggles have been well-documented this season. He’s got a 5.16 ERA on the year, but in terms of the way his stuff is working, he doesn’t seem to be terribly different than he was last season. By now, the pattern has been established: He looks like his usual excellent self through four or five innings before hitting a wall that didn’t seem to be there in 2022. His time-through-the-order splits tell the entire tale — he’s getting absolutely walloped whenever he sees a hitter who he’s already faced twice that day:


That OPS progression is truly startling. In an effort to highlight some of what might be happening here, I’m going to walk through the seventh inning plate appearance from Adam Frazier that got the ball rolling on Baltimore’s comeback in their brutal 9-6 win at Yankee Stadium on May 24th. But before I do, I want you to see what happened the first two times Cortes saw Frazier that day. It’s quick, only a few pitches. First, he induces a two-pitch groundout by getting ahead in the count with a fastball in the zone and then putting his sweeper in an excellent spot, drawing a swing and weak contact.

The approach was the same his next time up. Nestor once again attacks early with a fastball that catches some plate, but Frazier swings at just 20 percent of 0-0 pitches he sees, so it’s not a bad bet. He continues to pound him with fastballs in spots where Frazier can only foul them off, not do damage, before baiting him into another weak groundout with a sweeper that started far enough in over the plate that he had to offer at it.

Then came the seventh inning. After Anthony Santander and Austin Hays reached base to start the inning, Frazier was due up. Even though he lays off the first pitch 80percent of the time, even the dimmest high school coach could tell you that grooving someone a first-pitch fastball right down the middle three straight times is a terrible idea. Which is why even though José Trevino set up on the outside corner, Nestor misses down the middle to his arm side. Fortunately (at that point), Frazier isn’t a very good hitter, so even though he was waiting to strike, he could only foul it off.

Still, the approach remains the same. He goes back to the sweeper, but this time, he just can’t keep it close enough to the plate to get Frazier to bite.

Even count, time to be aggressive and get ahead again. Nestor and Trevino settle on a fastball. This is where Trevino set up for the pitch.

That is not where Nestor threw the pitch.

Yikes. Missing up and to the arm side like that with the fastball is a classic sign of the mechanical disconnect caused by fatigue. Nestor’s ability to consistently hit spots with three or four pitches on any given day is what makes him good, when he’s good. The third time against Frazier, he simply missed all of his spots. And it wasn’t just Frazier. Look at the difference in pitch locations against Anthony Santander the first two times he saw him that day...

Baseball Savant opposed to the six-pitch walk he drew to precede Frazier’s dinger:

We’ve seen this happen more than once this year. You can only learn so much from pitch charts, but I can’t bore you with 20 video clips in a single go, so it’ll have to do. The locations of Nestor’s pitches to the heart of Oakland’s order, Brent Rooker, Jesús Aguilar, and JJ Bleday the first two times he saw them — in which they went 1-for-5 with a hard-earned walk — versus the last time he saw them, a sequence that resulted in a hit, a walk, a hit, and ultimately, his only two earned runs of the day, allowed by Ron Marinaccio.

Again, we go from consistently nailing the corners and working around the edges of the zone, to a mix of non-competitive high fastballs and cutters and straight-up misses middle-in to right-handed hitters. Once again, the high fastballs are conspicuous. The difference in those fastballs that live just a hair above the zone and the ones that sail high out of the hand because of fatigue is the difference between getting through the order a third time and getting in trouble.

These are just two cherry-picked examples, and it would be foolish to draw any concrete conclusions from. Still, the blow-by-blow of the plate appearances he’s getting burned on later in games combined with the accelerated pace of the game due to the pitch clock points to simple fatigue as a potentially significant factor in these issues. Hopefully, he makes whatever adjustments he needs to to prove me wrong, and we see the Nestor of late 2021 and 22 sooner rather than later. For now, though, he’s simply not hitting his spots once he gets more than four or five innings into a game. Whatever the cause, it seems as if it should be fixable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like something that’s going to simply self-correct, and until the necessary adjustments are made, Aaron Boone might need to adjust his gameplan for the lefty, if he hasn’t already.