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 pitch...

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 disturbances, an oddity among the creatures of habit baseball spawns.

Cuban southpaw who changes his delivery at will, Cortes uses a variety of arm angles, leg kicks, hesitant moves and quick throws. His bag of tricks made him an entertaining watch before his numbers warranted attention, but he tried to go mainstream when the Yankees first gave him a major league opportunity in 2019.

“When he gets called up, he’d be too scared to make it to the big leagues,” catcher Kyle Higashioka, who first caught Cortes at Trenton Class AA in 2016, said of his teammate’s tantrums. . “I kept texting him like, ‘Man, you gotta be yourself when you come here.'”

It didn’t take long for Cortes to heed Higashioka’s advice. Soon, Rob Friedman’s popular Twitter account, ninja launcher, began sharing Cortes’ frequent stunts alongside videos of some of baseball’s nastiest pitches. But Cortes didn’t consider his regular repertoire villainous at the time. He was right.

After being returned to the Yankees after a brief 2018 stint with the Baltimore Orioles as a Rule 5 draft pick, Cortes posted a 5.67 ERA in 33 games with the Yankees in 2019. This offseason, 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. Stepping away from baseball, however, never crossed his mind. He had seen too many talented players give up too soon. Instead, he signed a minor league contract with the Yankees, the team that drafted him in the 36th round in 2013 from Hialeah High School, Florida.

“It only takes one chance or one guy to get hurt,” Cortes, 27, said before a recent game at Yankee Stadium. “You don’t wish that on anyone, but it’s the truth. This is how sport is practiced. You have the opportunity, you seize it, you run with it and you make the most of it.

Cortes had put up 15 solid innings at the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre class in 2021 when the Yankees found themselves shorthanded in late May. But a promotion to the major league club seemed inconsequential at the time.

He had been a Scranton shuttle reliever in his first stint with the Yankees, and the team just needed fresh arms. But after walking four times in his first game back, Cortes found an unforeseen rhythm, first as a reliever, then as a short-inning starter, and then, finally, as a member of the rotation. Yankees. His last 12 appearances were starts and he finished the 2021 season with a 2.90 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 93 innings.

Cortes turned that performance into a rotational spot this spring, and he continued to mystify hitters. He has a 1.15 ERA in his first three starts in 2022, and he’s racked up 25 strikeouts in 15 ⅔ innings while walking just three batters. Twelve of those strikeouts came on April 17, when Cortes held the Orioles scoreless — and pitched a clean inning. He recently whipped up eight Cleveland guards while allowing two earned runs in six and a third inning Saturday.

Cortes has become something of a cult hero – Yankees manager Aaron Boone recently used the phrase “The Legend of Nestor” – as his success seemingly came out of nowhere. But the truth is that Cortes had to wait and struggle for years to shine.

“I feel like I’ve been knocked down many times. I got back up for the worst and for the better,” said Cortes, who is slated to start against the Kansas City Royals on Friday in Missouri. “This time, since last year, fortunately, everything is fine, and it is much smoother. It’s much nicer to be here and do it for a big league team.

So what has changed? How did Cortes go from the margins of MLB rosters to a pitcher who’s only half-jokingly called an ace?

For one thing, the turnover rate has improved on all pitches at Cortes over the past two years, according to Baseball Savant. He has also adopted a cutter, his favorite court this season, and no longer plays with a curve ball. Cortes’ fastball also gained around two miles per hour, although he still only averaged 90.5 miles per hour.

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

There’s no denying things have gotten better for Cortes, but his deceptive tactics also help an arsenal that pales in comparison to baseball’s star pitchers.

“The art of throwing only disrupts the timing of the batters. You can do it in different ways,” said fellow starter Jameson Taillon, listing examples such as shifting, location, arm angles, pace and delivery. “He kind of takes all of that into account.”

Added reliever Clay Holmes, “Hitters get so locked in seeing pitches out of certain tunnels and angles. When he can change them, it can be a big advantage.

Cortes has seen this advantage play out many times.

“Once he was able to let himself play his own game and do the things he does, like funky timing and funky winding, he tapped into 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 it. comfortable being himself here. I think he’s been doing that for the last two years, and it’s really good to see.

At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Cortes isn’t one of the Yankees’ “physical specimens,” as Holmes put it. Holmes said there was an unassuming element to his locker mate, which Cortes recognized after awkwardly diving into first base to secure an outing against the Guardians. “Beneath that body is a guy who’s athletic,” he joked.

“People don’t see the prototype 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.”

There is, however, no confusion about Cortes’ athleticism in the Yankees locker room. His teammates revere his machinations on the mound and the skill required to pull them off effectively. Most pitchers — Holmes and Taillon included — wouldn’t be willing to deviate from the motions they’ve spent their careers honing. Cortes does it without a second thought.

“I think he’s deviously extremely athletic,” Taillon said, noting he was “too scared” to attempt Cortes’ subterfuge. “When I watch him do these things, I pay attention to what his mechanics are doing. It’s pretty amazing that he can hesitate and jerk his leg and keep his back knee on his ankle and keep his glute locked and stay strong. The pitching nerd inside me is mesmerized watching what he does.

As for deciding when to mix it up, Cortes is often left to his own devices. It really is a matter of feeling, and the situation plays a role. Two strikes count after a few standard pitches have been committed for optimal times, but hitters know Cortes is unpredictable.

Sometimes Higashioka will signal the deception, but the catcher no longer has to push the pitcher. Cortes’ so-called ‘normal’ offerings have improved, but he has no intention of giving 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’s working right now, I don’t see why I should change anything.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Nestor Cortes thrives for the Yankees by being himself
Nestor Cortes thrives for the Yankees by being himself
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