If you’re a New York Yankees fan or have Nestor Cortes on your fantasy baseball lineup, then you already know how good the left-hander has been this 2022 MLB season. Casual fans or other league managers, however, might not fully realize how and why Cortes has quickly risen up the fantasy baseball rankings this year. The Yankees pitcher is among the MLB league leaders in a number of advanced stats. After being a popular fantasy baseball waiver wire add in 2021, Cortes is now a top trade candidate this season – whether you’re buying or selling. How has the Yankees southpaw gone from fantasy baseball sleeper to top-tier arm? What are some fantasy baseball projections for the rest of the season? Let’s take a closer look at Cortes in this latest MLB Player Spotlight.
Nestor Cortes Fantasy Baseball Player Spotlight
Cortes broke onto the fantasy baseball scene last year when he compiled a 2.90 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 22 appearances (14 starts) with the Yankees. Well, it seems like he’s carried that success on the mound right into this 2022 campaign. Before his latest outing, Cortes was 5-1 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, and 68:14 K:BB ratio over his first 10 starts spanning 60 innings pitched. This past Wednesday, though, was a little hiccup for the New York southpaw.
Cortes coughed up four runs on seven hits over 4.1 innings against the Minnesota Twins earlier this week. His 2022 numbers now look like this: 1.96 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 71 strikeouts through 64.1 innings. That’s still really good. Fantasy baseball managers shouldn’t worry too much about one subpar outing from Cortes and he should get back on track next time out.
If we look at Cortes’ advanced stats, it looks like the Yankees will continue to get good starts from their breakout star. He has a 2.19 xERA, 2.85 FIP, a .193 batting average against, a 28.6% strikeout rate, and a 23% K-BB ratio thus far. It’s worth noting, though, that the current .250 BABIP and 87.2% left-on-base rate suggest he’s gotten a bit lucky at times.
Still, Cortes is near the top of MLB league leaders in a number of other advanced stats and sabermetrics. Take a look at his Statcast profile and notice all the red.
Even after Wednesday’s four-run outing, Cortes remains in the 89th percentile or better in xERA, xBA, and xwOBA among MLB pitchers. He’s also in the top tier in plenty of other stats, as the red above shows. We’ll get to this in a second, but it clearly doesn’t matter that Cortes is only in the fifth percentile in fastball velocity.
Cortes’ Unique Career Path
If you aren’t familiar with Cortes, here’s a quick refresher on his interesting career arc to this point. The Cuban was originally selected in the 36th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Yankees, spent five seasons in New York’s minor league system, then was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft. He broke the Orioles’ Opening Day roster in 2018 but mustered just a 7.71 ERA over 4.2 innings before getting designated for assignment in early April.
The Yankees then scooped Cortes back up and kept him at Triple-A for the remainder of the 2018 season. In 2019, he appeared in 33 games for the big-league NYY club with 32 of those coming as a reliever. His 5.67 ERA eventually led to the Yanks trading him to the Seattle Mariners ahead of the 2020 season. After allowing 13 runs over 7.2 innings with Seattle that year, Cortes then went back to the Yankees for a third stint ahead of the 2021 season.
In a roundabout way, Cortes eventually found himself back on the team that originally drafted him almost a decade ago. As mentioned above, the left-hander put up some impressive stats for New York last year and he’s carried it right over into this 2022 campaign. So, how’s he doing it? Let’s take a deeper dive.
Like many Yankee pitchers before him, Cortes is finding a ton of success via his cut fastball. The pitch makes up the highest percentage of his arsenal at 38.9% of his total pitches this season. Not only that, but Cortes’ cutter is holding opposing hitters to a .162 average and .239 wOBA despite being the most common pitch. His cutter also has a 25.2% whiff rate and 29.2% strikeout rate this season. Those are some stellar numbers considering, again, it’s the pitch that Cortes throws the most.
It’s also interesting that he didn’t throw the cutter at all before last season. The Yankee influence, though, is a big reason why Cortes introduced the cut fastball into his repertoire for the first time in his career – it made up 23.6% of his total pitches in 2021. However, he didn’t have nearly as much success with the pitch last season compared to his 2022 numbers. Cortes allowed a .271 batting average and .345 wOBA with just a 17% strikeout rate on the cutter last year.
Why is Cortes’ cutter so much better this year? Well, you could point to the slight velocity uptick with an 86.4 mph average on the cutter in 2022 compared to 85.4 mph last season. You can also point to Cortes feeling much more confident and comfortable about throwing the cutter overall.
Or you could look at his four-seam fastball being a bit more effective with at 91.1 mph, .190 BA and .218 wOBA allowed and making up 38.3% of his arsenal – compared to a .196 BA/.268 wOBA against at 90.7 mph and 42.5% of pitches last year. Cortes fine-tuning both the cutter and four-seamer has allowed both pitches to be better overall with a near-even split of the total pitch percentage.
Cortes also mixes in a slider (15.5%), changeup (3.7%), and sinker (3.7%) – but he relies heavily on his cutter and four-seamer playing off each other. Check out this sequence of pitches when Cortes tossed an “immaculate inning” against the Orioles back in April. You’ll notice how the four-seam fastball looks so much faster and leaves opposing hitters helpless at times because the cutter is now used more often.
Even though Cortes doesn’t throw 100 mph or have a filthy breaking ball, he’s able to consistently get batters out with his fastball/cutter tandem.
Nasty Nestor’s Deliveries and Release Points
Another way Cortes keeps hitters off balance is by mixing in different throwing motions, windups, arm slots, and deliveries. The below video of Cortes’ different wind-ups from the 2021 season may be laughable, but it’s also effective in keeping hitters guessing at the plate.
It’s the lefty version of Johnny Cueto or Marcus Stroman. Though Cortes has cut back on the funky deliveries a little bit in 2022, he’s still capable of mixing one in to change up the timing of opposing batters – especially if he’s feeling confident in the sixth or seventh innings of a scoreless outing.
Cortes also changes up his release point of every pitch to keep hitters even more off balance. Pitchers normally throw pitches from the same arm slot over and over, but not “Nasty Nestor.” This guy will change up his release point from one pitch to the next and it won’t matter whether he’s throwing the fastball, cutter, slider, changeup, or sinker. Check out this graph of his different release points (courtesy of MLB.com).
Cortes’ 2022 release points include differences of almost two feet vertically and three feet horizontally, which keeps hitters guessing when it comes to timing at the plate. It may not seem like a big deal on paper, but timing is huge for hitters trying to get an edge – and different release points throw that timing off. The video below shows Cortes switching up his arm angles for the same fastball pitch, leaving Charlie Culberson helpless.
Rest of Season Expectations
There’s a chance opposing offenses and hitters start to get a better read on Cortes as this season goes on, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism that his dominance can continue. Of course the poor outing this past Wednesday isn’t ideal, but it’s likely just a slight hiccup in an otherwise stellar campaign.
Cortes' improved cutter won't go away and hitters should continue to struggle against the pitch – especially when used well in tandem with the four-seamer. That repertoire and the unorthodox deliveries and release points are big reasons why we can expect big things from Cortes moving forward.
Be happy that you have the Yankees' lefty on your team if you do and enjoy plenty more good outings. You could consider selling high on Cortes in trades if you're deep with pitching, but you may also regret it come August/September. If you're interested in trading for Cortes, you can feel good about his rest-of-season success. The price tag may be high, but a poor outing like this past one could present a mini buy-low opportunity.
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