How did the Yankees get so lucky with Nestor Cortes?
A Saturday matchup against the Baltimore Orioles had no meaning for the Yankees standings, but showcased a brilliant from the team's No. 2 starter.
In his final outing until the playoffs, Nestor Cortes pitched an absolute gem. 7.1 innings, 1 hit, and a whopping 12 strikeouts in the 8-0 win.
His All-Star season was truly remarkable. 28 games started with a 12-4 record. He held a 2.44 ERA with a 0.92 whip in 158 innings pitched, that's the lowest single season ERA by a Yankees starter since Ron Guidry in 1978. He struck out 162 and collected a 3.9 WAR. A standout player that made this team even more powerful. But his success didn't just happen. It goes back to last year, and we watched a diamond in the rough become one of the league's best.
His journey is quite random, but poetic. The Yankees drafted Nestor in the 36th round of the 2013 draft, and grew in the organization over the next few years. Cortés played 2017 with Tampa, Trenton, and the RailRiders, where he was 7–4 with a 2.06 ERA in 30 games.
Then in 2017, Baltimore snagged him in the Rule 5 draft and made the Orioles' Opening Day roster in 2018 as a relief pitcher. He was DFA'd in April, and returned to the Bronx, where he spent most of the time in SWB, with brief stints in the majors. He was 5–1 with an ERA of 5.67 in 33 games.
The Yankees traded him to Seattle in 2019 for international pool money. Then in 2020, Cortes quietly and randomly signed a minor league contract to return to the New York Yankees organization. He reported the news himself, and later was promoted to the major leagues on May 30, 2021. The rest is history.
So how did this journey man reliever become one of the best starting pitchers in the league? Back in July, pitching coach Matt Blake had this to say.
"When he first started going last year, the league didn’t really know who he was. I mean, they knew of Nestor, but they hadn’t necessarily seen this version of him, where there’s a little bit more velocity [and] the fastball has kind of a true riding profile, one that’s a little bit closer to cut than run. And then the cutter off of that creates a really tough visual for hitters to identify. He’d also added the sweeper slider to be able to slow guys down and steal some strikes.
Now that he’s gone through the back half of last year and the first half of this year… his game plan is probably a little more limited than your traditional starter, by default. He’s really good at executing a smaller game plan, but I think the league is starting to take note. It’s really on us, as a group, to decide, ‘Do you continue to hammer down on your particular strength, trying to power through other teams game planning for your fastball and cutter, or do you start to move into different areas, add other pitches?’ Basically, does he need to add some variables, some wrinkles, without getting away from what makes him Nestor? That’s the crux of his development now.”
The power of an ELITE pitching coach. Nestor has made himself quite indispensable for this Yankees team. Luckily, he isn't a UDFA until 2026, but I'm sure he'll get a payday with the arbitrations. For now, it's time watch our All-Star shine in this upcoming playoffs, and reminisce on his memorizing windups.