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Néstor Cortes, Jr. and the Power of One

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If I told you the Yankees had a lefty pitcher whose fastball averaged 90.4 miles per hour (14th percentile) and whose fastball spin rate ranked in the 38th percentile, what would you think? I don’t think it’d be positive. You’d likely think it was a last-guy-in-the-bullpen situation. Enter Néstor Cortes, Jr. Despite those lowly ranks in things we might look for in a strikeout pitcher, Cortes ranks in the 68th percentile for strikeout rate and the 75th percentile for hard hit percentage. He’s been nothing short of amazing and was instrumental in helping the Yankees not only right but turn around the ship.

In 2021, Cortes has thrown his fastball 387 times to great, great success. To date, the pitch has a .165 BA against (.145 expected), a .224 SLG against (.226 expected), and a .222 wOBA against (.210 expected). It’s been his put away pitch 24.6% of the time and sports a 34% strikeout rate. All told, that adds up to 11 runs of value (Statcast calls this -11, but you get the idea), which ranks 14th in all of MLB (minimum 300 fastballs thrown). Part of the reason is location. Look at this plot of Cortes’ fastballs:

Lots of fastballs up and just out of the zone. These are locations, especially that red zone (87), in which it’s hard to put a good swing on the ball or make good contact. This is ironic considering his relatively low velocity and spin rate on fastballs. Typically, it’s high velocity and/or high spin rate fastballs that do damage to batters up in the zone. But, somehow, Cortes is doing it. Here’s his strikeout chart on fastballs:

Some big numbers appear in those out of the zone boxes at the top of the chart. One way or another, Cortes is getting batters to miss on well-located pitches. Maybe they think his ball is easier to hit because of the low velocity. Or maybe his changing rhythms and occasional deception in delivery are fooling batters. Either way, it’s working, even when they make contact. Remember that .222 wOBA mark against the pitch? Here’s what it looks like by zone:

Again, look at the numbers up in the zone and just out of it. He’s having great success with the high fastball, despite not appearing to have a fastball that would succeed up in the zone.

No matter the reason, Néstor Cortes has been a revelation for the Yankees this year. Their philosophy of working fastballs up in the zone has rubbed off on him, so that’s a credit to both a sound strategy and a pitcher who’s making it work. Nasty Néstor, indeed.

Game 117: Another nail-biting win

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Clearly, the Yankees haven’t heard Bobby’s plea to win a laugher. The Yankees may have won 5-3 this afternoon, but it wasn’t easy. The offense stranded 14 runners, Aaron Boone made some questionable decisions, and the bullpen nearly collapsed once again. Exhale.

The win moves the Yankees to 65-52 this season and pushes them closer to a postseason spot as a couple of clubs they’re chasing lost today. Minnesota walked off the Rays, so the Yankees are now five games out of the loss column in the division. Boston won, but Oakland fell to Texas, bringing the Yanks to within two games in the loss column of the top Wild Card spot. Now, let’s get to today’s takeaways.

Game 108: Did you just say Gallo?

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Those midseason trades are making Brian Cashman look pretty brilliant these days. The new-look, can’t-miss Yankees struck again this evening, this time against a team that actually means something to them in the standings as they beat the Seattle Mariners 5-3 in the Bronx. Joey Gallo had his first True Yankee moment, the Bombers now lead the Mariners by two games in the race for the wild card, and everyone went home happy.  To the takeaways:

Game 53: Yankees Swept and Embarrassed by Detroit

The Tigers came into this series with the worst run differential in the AL and handily swept the Yankees. This about sums it up:

We sincerely hope you had better things to do on this rainy Memorial Day Weekend Sunday than watch this debacle of a game in which the Bombers lost 6-2. To the takeaways:

The Yankees Will Be Okay

Usually we start these with how the starting pitcher did, but today warrants something different because it’s too easy to slip into the malaise and start thinking the season is over. It is not. After tomorrow, the season will be exactly 1/3 done, and despite how awful they have looked at times, the Yankees are on a 90 win pace.

Getting swept by any team sucks, and getting swept by the worst team in the league is even worse. It happens. Just last week, the Yankees were on a 6 game winning streak and swept the first-place White Sox. One bad week does not doom a season. There’s a reason they play 162 of these. Around these parts we’re constantly preaching patience and staying calm because the Yankees are good. In fact, they are still the best team in the AL. They didn’t look it this weekend, but they are and they will.

Starting tomorrow, the Yankees have 4 games against the Rays and Red Sox who lead the division. It’s time to hit the reset button, forget about this weekend and start playing like the team we know they are.

Mike King struggles in 5th starter audition

With Corey Kluber out for the next two months, the Yankees need another starter. Deivi García struggled in his audition yesterday, and King could not capitalize today. His final line was 2.1 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 2 HBP, 2 K. It took him 61 pitches just to get through those 2.1 innings. His pitch plot on the day left much to be desired:

Everything is all over the place and there’s way too many sinkers left right over the middle. Put differently, here’s a heatmap for his signature sinker on the afternoon:

You don’t need to be Matt Blake to know that’s not where you want to throw your sinker. You want that pitch to be at or below the zone to generate ground balls. Poor sinker location led to the following two-out double in the first:

The pitch location was predictably awful:

In a two strike count with two outs and RISP you absolutely cannot throw a sinker there. Especially not to a team that ranks bottom five in AVG, OBP, OPS, Runs, and HR. Thanks to some awful defending by Clint on the play, Miguel Cabrera was able to score from first on the play.

The offense is a joke right now

Five runs total in a series against the Tigers is unacceptable. Tarik Skubal came into this game with a 5.23 ERA and a 5.94 FIP to match. And the peripherals back it up:

Despite all that blue, the Yankees couldn’t get anything going against Skubal in his 6 scoreless innings.

There’s a lot of hittable pitches in there and the Yankees only managed 3 hits. They also struck out 8 times and Skubal had a 33% whiff rate on the day.

There are two things plaguing the Yankees offense right now: ground balls and bad luck. They have a 46% GB rate as a team which is the 6th highest in baseball. That’s how despite hitting the ball hard, they have nothing to show for it. In the first, after DJ and Stanton got on, Judge rifled a 108 mph grounder…for a double play. All that exit velocity means nothing when it’s pounded into the ground right at people.

Luck is also playing a factor here.

Numbers that bad are a combination of bad luck and guys pressing to try and do too much. Regression will even that out.

The April defense rears its ugly head

Believe it or not, that message was sent before the 3rd error they committed in the 3rd inning. At one point, the team had more errors than hits which is a reflection of both the offense and the defense. Here’s one of the errors:

Better get it out of their system today and play much sharper against the Rays starting tomorrow.

Leftovers

  • Nasty Nestor Cortes Jr. made his triumphant return to the big leagues for his first Yankee appearance since 2019. He sucked up 3.2 much needed innings and will likely be sent back to Scranton later today.
  • Even when they scored, the Yankees made another out on the bases in the 8th inning. That’s 26 outs on the bases for the season.
  • DJ LeMahieu and Gary Sánchez both had multi-hit games. Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come for both of them.
  • They somehow got the tying run to the plate in the 9th inning, so let’s see if the O’Neill theory pans out for tomorrow.

Wash the bad taste out of your mouths from this series, and hopefully look forward to better things tomorrow. It’ll be Jameson Taillon against Rich Hill back in the Bronx.

News & Notes: Cashman on YES, Hicks, Cortes returns

The Winter Meetings have come and gone with a thud. Sure, a few deals went down, but nothing earth-shattering. I suppose this was to be expected. Rather than a steady flow of rumors and moves, it was just like every other week this offseason.

Brian Cashman sheds some light on the Yankees’ offseason

The Yankees stood pat this week, but we do have some team-related news to relay, mostly thanks to Brian Cashman’s interview on YES yesterday. NJ.com’s Randy Miller transcribed a number of relevant quotes which I’ll break down here as well.

  • Cashman expressed the team’s intent to bring back free agent DJ LeMahieu. No shocker here.
  • After discussing LeMahieu, Meredith Marakovits asked if Masahiro Tanaka fits into the picture if the team re-signs LeMahieu. Cashman was very coy here, basically saying he couldn’t answer the question about what fits into the team’s budget. I’ve seen folks read that response as if Tanaka is a goner. I understand that sentiment, especially given his openness about wanting to bring back DJLM. However, it’s not like he was directly asked about wanting to bring back Tanaka. I wonder if he used the question being targeted toward the financial aspect to avoid talking about Tanaka at all. Perhaps that means a reunion with Tanaka isn’t out of the cards, though maybe I’m just overthinking it.
  • The GM had plenty of good things to say about Gary Sánchez, though he couched his statement by saying that they’re not giving him a pass. Cashman cited how hard he hit the ball this season when he made contact, which was obviously an issue for him (36 percent strikeout rate). It should come as no surprise that the team tendered him a contract last week based on Cashman’s steadfast belief in the backstop.
  • It sure sounds like Domingo Germán has been welcomed back based on the way Cashman spoke about the rotation. Hal Steinbrenner had previously said the team would need “proof that he [Germán] turned his life around”.
  • Cashman would like to add to the rotation this offseason, but he also stated that “you could certainly daydream” that the pitching staff might actually have everything that it already needs. Look, I love some of the young arms that this team has, but let’s add some depth please.

Aaron Hicks says his elbow still isn’t 100 percent

In addition to Cashman, the Yankees’ center fielder was also on YES last night. I believe Hicks mentioned this during the regular season, but I found it notable that he said yesterday that his elbow still doesn’t feel 100 percent after Tommy John surgery. Perhaps it won’t be, which stinks.

As Hicks noted in the interview, he felt like it took him until the end of the year to really feel more like himself. His numbers bore this out too. Offensively, that may be as a result of changing his swing so he doesn’t hyperextend his elbow. I’m pretty sure this is the first we’ve heard of Hicks having to adjust his swing mechanics since the surgery.

Nestor Cortes is back in the organization

Per his own Instagram account, Nestor Cortes has re-signed with the Yankees after spending 2020 with the Mariners. The Yanks dealt him to Seattle last offseason, and sheesh, did Cortes struggle. He had a 15.26 ERA in 7 2/3 innings with the Mariners. Elbow issues appear to be the blame here as an elbow impingement shut his season down mid-August. The lefty is now pitching in the Dominican Republic, so he’s presumably healthy.

The Yankees haven’t announced the move yet, but it’s safe to assume that this is a minor league deal. I’m sure we’ll see Cortes receive an invite to spring training, too. Odds are he’s just minor league depth during 2021, though he could serve as a mop-up man if absolutely needed in the big leagues.

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