Is It Time to Worry About Nestor Cortes?

Nestor Cortes Jr. (Robert M. Pimpsner)

Nestor Cortes has been nothing short of a reliable arm every fifth day for the New York Yankees. That’s been the case since 2021, when he entered the rotation in July and finished the season with a 2.90 ERA over 93 innings pitched.

He followed that up with a full season of work good enough to land him in the All-Star game. He also finished 8th in Cy Young voting, ending his 2022 campaign with a 2.44 ERA over 158.1 innings pitched.

But is it possible those 158 innings pitched took a toll? In the top of the 3rd inning of Game 4 of the ALCS, Nestor Cortes ran into trouble. With the Yankees leading 3-0, Cortes walked the first two batters of the inning before facing Jeremy Pena.

Pena would hit a three run homer.

With the loss in velocity on his fastball and the lack of location, the Yankees pulled Cortes with an apparent hamstring injury. On his walk off the field, he was accompanied by the training staff.

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That same injury would end up forcing him out of the World Baseball Classic in 2023, and it had an impact on his ramp-up leading into this season.

What we’ve seen so far in 2023, potentially as a result, is a less dominant Nestor Cortes. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad in hopes of coming to a verdict on whether to be worried about Cortes’ performance.

The Bad News

In 42.1 Innings Pitched this season, Cortes has a 5.53 ERA and 5.17 xFIP. He also holds his worst K% (23.2), BB% (7.2%), K-BB% (16%) and Batting Average Against (.261) since joining the Yankees’ rotation.

He has also posted the worst hard hit rate (30.9%), Chase Rate (23.8%) and ground ball rate (23.6%) of his career. We can easily visualize these changes just by looking at his Baseball Savant homepage.

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Two things jump off the page, most notably the Hard Hit Rate and the Chase Rate. Both were in the 65th percentile or better last year, and are each in the bottom half of the league this year.

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If I were to be in full panic mode, I’d say this. It’s entirely possible that the league is finally catching up to Nestor. His ‘sweeper’, as StatCast classifies, had a .233 BAA in 2021, .268 in 2022 and is now at .333 in 2023.

He’s started relying on his fastball more, upping the usage by 6% this year. His cutter has also gotten more usage (2%) and the Sweeper is slowly taking a backseat. Its usage is down from 18.6% to 12% this year.

So it’s possible that Nestor is going from a true three-pitch pitcher to a two-pitch pitcher. That’s not necessarily something you want to see out of a starter, so it’s worth keeping an eye on that as the season progresses.

The Good News

Candidly, there isn’t a ton of a good news and most of it is speculation. As aforementioned, Nestor entered the season with a Hamstring injury, so it’s possible he’s still dealing with some issues there. There’s a chance he didn’t get a proper ramp up, and he may be using the beginning of this season as a form of Spring Training.

There is, though, some light at the end of the tunnel with his expected numbers. While his xFIP sits North of 5, his xERA is at a respectable 3.92. He’s also surrendered a .342 wOBA, but owns just a .309 xwOBA, so there may be some batted ball luck coming his way.

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The Verdict

I think it’s time to, at the very least, have your antennas up for Nestor. To some degree he has lost what made him elite last season. He’s getting hit harder and not generating the chases.

There’s still plenty of season left, and he may just need more time to get fully ramped up coming off the hamstring injury. Regardless, likely gone are Nestor’s days as a sub-3 ERA pitcher.

He makes his 9th start of the season Thursday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

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