'Be Nestor Cortes': Yankees' breakout lefty unlocks key to success

BALTIMORE — He is the best pitcher in the American League right now and, less than two years removed from searching for a job, is probably headed to his first All-Star Game. But Nestor Cortes won’t forget the unlikely and somewhat forgotten baseball figures who got him there.

Cortes has, startlingly, been the most dominant pitcher on the New York Yankees’ staff, his 1.35 ERA leading the AL as he gets deeper into games and more dominant with every start. And while the Yankees can thank anyone from Cortes to Aaron Judge to Michael King for their blistering 27-9 start, they may want to send thank you notes to the likes of Gio Gonzalez and Odrisamer Despaigne.

Wait, who?

Yankees fans might remember Gonzalez. The left-hander signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees in March 2019 before opting out to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers a month later, the penultimate stop in a 13-year career that concluded in 2020.

'NO STOPPING THIS TEAM': How Yankees became MLB's best

TOP PROSPECTS: Ranking MLB's next crop of future stars

Yet Gonzalez’s most meaningful contributions for the club came nearly a decade earlier, when he visited the baseball team at Florida’s Hialeah High School and found an admiring southpaw who stood an inch or two shorter.

“He was a short lefty, like me, and he’d come back and talk to us, mentor us,” remembers Cortes, who stands no taller than 5-10 and arrived in the USA as a 1-year-old after his family immigrated from Cuba via the visa lottery. “I rooted for him every time he pitched. I remember one time telling him, ‘I wish I’m like you some day.' He said, ‘Try to be the best Nestor Cortes you can be. There’s already a Gio Gonzalez. There’s already a CC Sabathia. Be Nestor Cortes and be the best at it.’

“It stuck with me.”

Nestor Cortes during a game against the White Sox in Chicago.
Nestor Cortes during a game against the White Sox in Chicago.

Gonzalez won 131 games in his career and earned two All-Star nods, but his biggest fan has already posted a seven-start run that exceeded the mentor. Cortes has allowed one or no earned runs in five of his seven starts, getting more dominant as he stretches out following early-season, post-lockout usage concerns. He has given up four hits and one earned run in his last two starts, a 15 ⅓-inning stretch that included a no-hit bid he carried into the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers.

Cortes struck out 11 that day, thanks largely to a pitch that’s by many measures been the most effective weapon in the majors this season.

And that brings us to Despaigne.

Cortes was a 36th-round pick of the Yankees in 2013 and he played the role of itinerant lefty early in his career – selected by the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft before the 2018 season, only to be returned to New York in April. Traded to Seattle in November 2019, where he spent more time in the minors before becoming a minor-league free agent in 2020.

Along the way was a 2018 winter-ball stop in the Dominican Republic, where the Cuban-born Cortes and his countryman, Despaigne, were throwing partners with Estrellas. It was in those sessions that Despaigne, who pitched for five major league teams in six seasons and now plays in South Korea, showed him the grip on his cutter.

“He basically said, ‘Hey, grip this and throw it,’” recalls Cortes. “He was the one who unlocked it for me.”

It would be nice to say that this was a light-bulb moment, that Cortes, armed with a new pitch, launched himself to instant stardom. Yet baseball’s fixes are rarely that simple.

It took a couple more years, Cortes getting a bit older and stronger and re-signing with the Yankees as a free agent in January 2021, that he saw a change. And it was nothing more than Cortes, now 27, taking his average fastball velocity from the 89-91 mph range to 91-93.

Suddenly, a pitcher already relying heavily on deception had a little more fuzz on his ball, and his cutter began moving magically, allowing his pitches to play off each other.

Cortes took a large step forward last year, striking out 103 in 93 innings and posting a 2.90 ERA over 22 outings, 14 of them starts. The Yankees lightly penciled him into their rotation this season.

Now, there’s no more effective weapon in the game.

Cortes’s cutter produces the lowest batting average against in the major leagues – .141 over 250 pitches, well ahead of NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes’ .195. It’s tops in strikeout percentage (31%) and third in swing and miss percentage (26.4%). Overall, Cortes is third in the majors in batting average against (.185) and fourth in WHIP (0.85).

His breakout solidifies a Yankees rotation topped by a $324 million ace in Gerrit Cole followed by three question marks that have all been answered effusively. Jameson Taillon has been effective following postseason ankle surgery while Luis Severino has dominated at times after starting just 11 games since 2019.

And then there is Cortes, who says he can “pitch in” with the other guys and not have to feel sheepish about his performance.

These days, they’re the ones looking up to him.

“He takes the ball and he’s going to roll his average,” says Cole, “which is pretty (expletive) good.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Yankees' Nestor Cortes is a breakout star: How lefty became AL's best