Nestor Cortes thrives for the Yankees by being himself

There was a time when Nestor Cortes was afraid to be himself.

That reality is a little hard to believe when it comes to a Yankees pitcher best known for the idiosyncrasies he brings to the mound. Cortes is a contortionist who thrives on disruption, a peculiarity among the habitual beings that baseball breeds.

A Cuban south paw that changes its delivery at will, Cortes uses a variety of arm angles, leg kicks, hesitant movements and quick pitches. His bag tricks made him an entertaining watch before his numbers warranted attention, yet he tried to go mainstream when the Yankees first gave him a major league opportunity in 2019.

“When he would be called up, he would be too scared to do it in the big leagues,” said catcher Kyle Higashioka, who first caught Cortes in Class AA Trenton in 2016, about his teammate’s quirks. “I kept writing to him like ‘Dude, you have to be yourself when you get here’.”

It did not take long before Cortes followed Higashioka’s advice. Soon enough, Rob Friedman’s popular Twitter account, Pitching Ninja, began sharing Cortes’ frequent stunts along with videos of some of baseball’s ugliest lanes. But Cortes did not consider his regular repertoire too ugly at the time. He was right.

After returning to the Yankees after a brief stint in 2018 with the Baltimore Orioles as a Rule 5 draft pick, Cortes posted a 5.67 ERA in 33 games with the Yankees in 2019. That low season, he was traded to Seattle, where he allowed 13 earned runs in just seven and two-thirds innings.

It was clear that a return to the minors awaited Cortes in 2021. Going away from baseball, however, never occurred to him. He had seen too many talented players give up too soon. Instead, he took a minor league deal with the Yankees, the team that had drafted him in the 36th round in 2013 from Hialeah (Fla.) High School.

“All it takes is an opportunity or a guy to get injured,” Cortes, 27, said before a recent game at Yankee Stadium. “You do not want anyone to, but that is the truth. That’s the way the sport is played. You get the opportunity, you take it, you run with it, and you get the best out of it.”

Cortes had put together a solid 15 innings at Class AAA Scranton / Wilkes-Barre in 2021 when the Yankees found themselves short-handed at the end of May. But a promotion to the major league club seemed indifferent at the time.

He had been a Scranton Shuttle reliever in his first stay with the Yankees, and the team simply needed fresh weapons. But after going back four in his first game, Cortes found an unforeseen groove, first as a reliever, then as a short-inning starter, and then, finally, as a member of the Yankees’ rotation. His last 12 appearances were starters and he finished the 2021 season with 2.90 ERA and 103 strikeouts over 93 innings.

Cortes parlayered that performance to a rotation spot this spring, and he continues to mystify batters. He has an ERA of 1.15 over his first three starts in 2022, and he has had 25 strikeouts over 15 ⅔ innings, while only going three batters. Twelve of those strikeouts came on April 17, when Cortes kept Orioles scoreless – and threw an immaculate inning. He blew the last eight Cleveland Guardians, while allowing two earned runs over six and a third innings on Saturday.

Cortes has become a cult hero – Yankees manager Aaron Boone recently used the phrase “The Legend of Nestor” – as his success apparently came out of nowhere. But the truth is, Cortes had to wait and fight for years before he shone.

“I feel like I’ve been beaten down a lot of times. I’ve come up again for the worst and for the best, ”said Cortes, who is expected to start against the Kansas City Royals on Friday in Missouri. “This time, since last year, luckily everything has gone well and it is much sweeter. It’s much nicer to be here and do it for a big league team. ”

So what has changed? How has Cortes gone from the edge of the MLB list to a pitcher who is only half jokingly called an ace?

First, the spin speed has improved on all of Cortes’ orbits over the last two years, per. Baseball Savant. He also adopted a cutter, his favorite track this season, and he no longer played with a basket ball. Cortes’ fastball has also won about two miles per hour, though he still only has an average of 90.5 miles per hour.

“I understand my pitch pack a little better,” Cortes said. “I know what I have to do to get right- and left-wingers out equally, no matter who’s in the box. I know what my strengths are and I will attack them every time.”

There’s no doubt that Cortes’ stuff has gotten better, but his deceptive tactics also help an arsenal that pales in comparison to baseball’s star throwers.

“The art of pitching is just to disrupt the timing of hitters. You can do that in a lot of different ways,” said co-starter Jameson Taillon, listing examples such as changing speeds, position, arm angles, pace and delivery. . “

Reliever Clay Holmes added: “Hiters are so stuck in seeing pitches out of certain tunnels and angles. When he can change them, that can be a big advantage.”

Cortes has seen that advantage play out repeatedly.

“Once he’s been able to let himself play his own game and do the things he does, like the funky timing and funky windup, he looks up to his potential,” Higashioka said. “As soon as we worked together in ’18 and ’19 and I saw what he was capable of in Triple-A, I knew he could do this. It was a matter of him being comfortable enough to “He’s been up here for the last couple of years, and it’s really good to see.”

At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Cortes is not one of the Yankees’ “physical tests,” as Holmes put it. Holmes said there was a modest element in his locker room, something Cortes admitted after awkwardly diving into first base to secure an out against the Guardians. “Under this body, there’s a guy who’s athletic,” he said.

“People can not see the prototype of being 6-foot-5 and throwing 98,” Cortes added the next day. “So I feel like some people are going to take longer than others to believe in me.”

However, there is no confusion about Cortes ‘athletics in the Yankees’ locker room. His teammates honor his intrigue on the mound and the skills required to effectively pull them out. Most pitchers – Holmes and Taillon included – would not be willing to deviate from the moves they have spent their careers refining. Cortes does it without a second thought.

“I think he’s sneaking extremely athletically,” Taillon said, noting that he is “too scared” to try Cortes’ deficit. “When I see him do these things, I’m aware of what his mechanics are doing. It’s pretty incredible that he can hesitate and kick his leg around and keep his back knee over the ankle and keep his glute locked and just stay strong. It the pitching nerd inside me is fascinated to see what he’s doing. “

When it comes to deciding when to mix, Cortes is often left to fend for itself. It’s very much an emotional sting, and the situation plays a role. Two-attack counts after a few standard lanes have been contaminated provide optimal times, but strikers know that Cortes is unpredictable.

Sometimes Higashioka will signal for fraud, but the catcher no longer has to push to the pitcher. Cortes’ so-called “normal” offerings have improved, but he has no plans to give up his unusual ways.

Not this time.

“I’m true to who I am,” Cortes said. “I understand who I am as a player, as a pitcher. And if it works right now, I can not see why I should change anything.”

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