Why Nestor Cortes will have to be great for Yankees in coming weeks

Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees
Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees / New York Yankees/GettyImages

Nestor Cortes Jr. has enjoyed a solid start to his 2023 campaign for the Yankees, but due to injuries and other rotational inconsistencies, he’ll not only have to be good. He’ll have to be great.

“Nasty Nestor” currently holds a 3-0 record, a 3.09 ERA, and a 3.47 FIP. His last start came on Thursday afternoon against the Los Angeles Angels. Cortes tossed six innings of three-run baseball while striking out seven batters. The New York Yankees won the contest (and the series) thanks in large part to a five-run first inning, as well as a solid outing from the Cuban native.

“My job was to go out there and give my team a chance to win, and that’s exactly what I did,” Cortes told MLB.com. “It helped with the five runs in the first inning, but I was able to deliver.”

It’s critical that Cortes is able to continually pitch well, given that Carlos Rodón and Luis Severino have not yet made their season debuts due to injury. Further, Clark Schmidt has yet to show that he can be a stable arm in the rotation. On days where he toes the rubber, New York digs deep into their bullpen.

Having starters at the top of the rotation who can go deep into games aids a team’s ability to utilize their bullpen when back end starters run into trouble. Cortes, along with ace Gerrit Cole, must go deeper into ball games.

According to Baseball Savant, Cortes ranks in the 83rd percentile in terms of BB% and the 35th percentile in terms of chase rate. While these are only initial statistics that will take more time to stabilize, they point to an interesting dynamic he could use to his advantage. While the 28-year-old lefty is not a pure strikeout pitcher, he could benefit from taking a more strikeout-oriented approach on the bump.

As a southpaw who was used as both a reliever and starter early in his career, Cortes has become accustomed to attacking the zone without hesitation. This skill lessens Cortes’ BB%, but also means that his chase rate is not at an elite level. Last season, Cortes ranked in the 65th percentile in terms of chase rate, and sported a 2.44 ERA over 28 starts.  

This is an aspect of his approach that could help him go deeper into games. If Cortes can mix in a few more finish pitches off the plate rather than relying on fastballs in the zone for his whiffs, he could dismiss batters even quicker the second and third time through the order. That said, strikeout pitchers also see their pitch counts tick up, on occasion; a minimum of three pitches to record a K is different than a potential one-pitch out on a fly ball or grounder.

Cortes will certainly be an important piece of the Yankees’ season as the summer begins to take shape, and he’ll have to be just as good if not better than he was in 2022. Perhaps there's still a way for him to further maximize his impressive arsenal.