Yankees starter Nestor Cortés Jr. mastering the not-so-fast fastball

By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer

NEW YORK, NY — Pitchers who throw harder strike out more batters.

That has been a core tenant of pitching since before Walter Johnson started blowing heaters by fools in the dead-ball days. The guy with the most K’s in MLB history? Nolan Ryan, who reportedly threw somewhat hard.

The correlation between velocity and punchouts is strong and easy to understand: The faster a fastball goes, the less time a batter has to react and make a swing decision, and the less likely he is to make contact with the baseball. Almost every dominant pitcher of the past two decades — Verlander, Cole, deGrom, Scherzer, etc. — could sit around 95 mph or faster.

Here’s a chart with every MLB pitcher’s K/9 and average fastball velocity (over 100 innings) since the start of 2021. Spoiler: The trendline goes up.

Those two circled dots? Those two soft-tossing, punch-out-racking heroes laughing in the face of modern baseball? Well, one of them is Clayton Kershaw, a future Hall of Famer who once upon a time had a 94 mph heater but has lost some of that zip as he has aged. Since 2021, Kershaw has averaged 90.7 mph on his fastball, well below the MLB average, but he has still been able to miss bats, thanks to a combination of potent off-speed offerings, superb command and unmatched experience.

The other gent on that list? Given that you clicked on this article, you probably know the answer: It’s Yankees breakout star Nestor Cortés Jr.

Drafted by the Yanks out of a Miami area high school in the 36th round back in 2013, Cortés inched his way up the minor-league ladder before the Orioles poached him in the 2018 Rule 5 draft. He struggled in Baltimore and ended up back with the Yanks. Then he found his way to Seattle, but he struggled yet again and ended up with New York a third time.

His third tenure in the Bronx has been a remarkable success. After starting 2021 as a long reliever and occasional spot starter, Cortés catapulted himself into a full-time rotation spot in late July. Since the start of last season, his 2.65 ERA is seventh-lowest in baseball among pitchers with at least 100 innings. That’s lower than that of 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray (2.99), Giants breakout ace Logan Webb (3.03) and even Cortés’ rotation mate, the $324 million man, Gerrit Cole (3.30).

Even more impressive than Cortés’ run-prevention numbers are his strikeout numbers. In the same span, he has averaged 10.6 strikeouts every nine innings, the 18th-best K/9 among starters and a phenomenal achievement for a 5-foot-11 pitcher who averages 90.7 mph with his heater.

Are those K numbers an accident, simply a byproduct of good pitching, or is Cortés intent on racking up punchouts?

“I’m trying to strike everybody out,” he admitted to FOX Sports. “If I get early-count weak contact, great, but when I go up there, I try to blow everybody away, even though it’s not blow-away speed.”

Cortés’ is an incredibly unique approach for a pitcher with his attributes. Most undersized soft-tossers, such as Kyle Hendricks and Mark Buehrle, rely on weak contact to get outs. But over the past year, Cortés has used deception, pitch sequencing and pin-point command to sit down a ton of batters.

“My fastest fastball ever?” Cortés weighted when asked. “I think it’s like a 94.5 or something like that. I think if you were to round it up, it would be 95, but probably 94.5, yeah, that’s my top.”

After fizzling with Baltimore in 2018, Cortés went to the Dominican Republic to pitch in winter ball for Estrellas Orientales, a team that at that point hadn’t won a championship in 50 years. That winter, Estrellas finally won the title in heroic fashion, and Cortés started to discover himself as a pitcher.

“It was so fun to be a part of that team. We were one of the best teams in history down there,” he remembered. “[Pitching in that environment] prepared me a bunch, honestly. Those fans down in Latin America, they’re die-hard baseball fans. That fan base was kind of like this fan base here. If you’re good, they’ll praise you. If you suck, they’ll boo you. That mentality of not wanting to sink and not wanting to suck and not wanting to go home led me to be so successful down there and definitely played a part in what I’m doing today here.”

The Dominican Winter League is also where Cortés learned his devastating cutter, a pitch he now throws more than 35% of the time. Former Padres and Orioles hurler Odrisamer Despaigne taught him how to grip the pitch when they played together on Estrellas, but Cortés didn’t start to throw it consistently until 2021.

“It wasn’t until last year when my velo jumped and everything else picked up that the cutter became really, really good,” he said. “Because before it was 82, 83, and sometimes it was loopy, sometimes it wasn’t. It wasn’t the pitch that it is now. Now I can throw it anywhere from 84 to 88, and it’s sharp, and it looks like a fastball, but at the end, it has a lot of horizontal movement.”

That cutter and the relative bump in velo have been instrumental in Cortés’ blossoming into perhaps the Yankees’ second-most reliable starter. But how sustainable is this excellence? There’s no doubt that Cortés’ profile has some flash-in-the-pan qualities to it — the lack of prospect track record, the low velocity, the reliance on deception over raw stuff — but if you pop open the hood on his underlying metrics , this breakout has some real oomph to it.

But no matter what the metrics or pitch movement and spin data say, there are some aspects of his dominance that Cortés himself can’t even comprehend.

“So sometimes I throw a pitch, and I see that they’re way late, or they swing through it. And I look back, and I’m like, ‘It’s 91.’ Like, I don’t understand how they miss it.

“Sometimes I don’t even understand myself.”

Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.

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