Dominant cutter, fastball have led to Nestor Cortes’ rise to New York Yankees ace

Nestor Cortes
New York Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes leaves a baseball game during the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers at Yankee Stadium.
AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

Nestor Cortes’ winding journey to big league success is perhaps a tale Disney would someday make a movie out of. The no-hitter that the everyman pitcher took into the eighth inning of Monday’s 1-0 win over the Texas Rangers might one of the movie’s major turning points. 

Cortes has become one of the Yankees’ best pitchers this season and after six starts on the mound, his 1.41 ERA is second-best in the American League. For good measure, the 27-year-old became the first Yankees pitcher to record 40 strikeouts with six or fewer runs in his first six starts. 

Of all the aces that have come in gone over the franchise’s history, Nestor Cortes was the first. Let that sink in. 

“I’m not surprised at all by this,” Aaron Boone said on Monday of the lefty’s success. “Now if we go back 14 months, maybe I’m surprised that he’s this dominant and this kind of a staple in our rotation, but going into this spring training, not at all. … Parts of last year when he went into the rotation and he was this guy last year in our rotation. 

“So I’m not surprised he’s continued that.”

Dating back to last season, Cortes has allowed three or fewer runs in 15 consecutive starts and is now tied with Ron Guidry and Bob Shawkey for the third-longest streak in franchise history by a Bombers starter. And since May 30, 2021, he has allowed more than three runs in just one of his 20 starts while posting a 2.52 ERA during that span. 

It is a far cry from where he had been just a few years ago after he went through a rough 2018, 2019 and 2020 and it wasn’t clear if Cortes would cut it in the majors. As a former 36th-round pick in 2013 by the Yankees, the lefty has always been a bit of an underdog, which has made his rise that much more satisfying. 

“The past three years, 18, 19 and 20 were pretty rough on me,” Cortes explained after his gem of an outing on Monday. “And after 20 I discovered some stuff on my pitches and knew what I had to be and what I had to do to maintain that level. Last year I broke out with it. I’m going to run with it.”

He later added: “I feel like I belong. It feels good to go out there every five days as a starter, but coming into the year I was going to accept any role.”

Nestor Cortes
New York Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes, center, is taken out of the game during the eighth inning.AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

So what was it that changed for Nestor Cortes going into last season? That would be discovering the two weapons that have served him well, his fastball and cutter. 

Both pitches, especially the cutter, were on display in Monday’s near no-hitter and drove Rangers batters crazy all afternoon. 

“I think it’s just how tight it stays on the fastball for a long time and then you get guys indecisive about whether they’re going to swing or take,” Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake explained. “When you think he’s going to throw the cutter, he throws the fastball on the plate and when you think he’s going to throw the fastball he throws the cutter off the plate. It kind of puts them in a bind.” 

The pitch had been so effective on Cortes’ latest start that manager Aaron Boone described it “like a Steve Carlton slider.” And the fastball, that’s just “not good hitting,” according to the Yankee skipper. 

“It’s a really good fastball,” Boone said. “Don’t get enamored with the number. There are guys who throw 96, 98 where it’s good hitting. It’s not a good fastball. We’re able to measure those things a lot better now. … When he can really establish the inside of the plate with a cutter off of that fastball and now go away with his heater some. Or challenge up in the strike zone and then have the ability to slow you down with the breaking ball.” 

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Even with all of his success recently, Cortes hasn’t lost that underdog mentality. There was no backup plan if baseball didn’t pan out and even after the breakout year in 2021, he still l checked in with Blake before the season to try and gauge if he had a chance of making the team this year. 

It’s safe to say that will be one thing he won’t have to worry about anymore. “Thankfully it started clicking last year and hopefully I can continue to do it,” he said.