Nestor Cortes Jr. has utilized his craftiness to get Major League hitters out despite a high-80s fastball. (AP)
In a sea of unexpected Yankees this year, Nestor Cortes Jr. might be chief among them.
With an injury-rattled rotation, the Bombers have turned to the opener strategy with Chad Green as the sole opener. However, the aproach only works with a bulk pitcher, someone who resembles a starter and can handle lineups at least 1-2 times through the order.
That's where Cortes comes in, serving as an effective sidekick to Green.
The Yankees experimented with the opener in Spring Training and considered using one in front of Domingo German or Jonathan Loaisiga early in the year. German locked down a rotation spot on his own before he and Loaisiga were placed on the injured list.
Cortes has helped take their place as one of three bulk options for Aaron Boone. Though Chance Adams and David Hale each won their outings following Green, it's been the crafty lefty that's taken a regular turn ostensibly in the rotation.
In seven games, all wins, the Green-bulk pitcher combination has produced a 3.55 ERA in those seven contests, better than the 4.45 league-average ERA. Meanwhile, the offense has stepped up with 7.6 runs a game, giving the 24-year-old Cortes ample leads with which to work.
What makes Cortes ideal to follow Green might be how he contrasts with the fire-balling righty. While Green tosses high-spin fastballs by hitters, Cortes attacks hitters with a fastball in the high-80s and a bag of tricks, throwing opposing lineups for a loop.
However, even with the edge Green gives Cortes by facing the top of the order, the Miami native has made each game his own. The former 36th-round pick brings a certain funk to the mound, which allows his stuff to play up. The left-hander constantly changes arm slots and alters his motion to mess with hitters' timing and add deception to his game.
Cortes' guile and craftiness have led to success at every step in the Minor Leagues, but there was serious doubt as to whether his repertoire would translate to the Majors in an era where high velocity reigns. The Yankees left him off their 40-man roster and allowed the Orioles to select him in the Rule 5 Draft prior to the 2018 season.
His stay in Baltimore was short-lived; Cortes lasted just four games before the Orioles offered him back to the Yankees. Alhough he continued to give New York quality numbers in the high Minors, there was risk that he'd be labeled a Quad-A player.
Now a month and a half since the Yankees called him up, Cortes has proven that pitchability and cunning can get Major League hitters out. He's struck out 28 batters and walked just six in 26 1/3 innings, earning a 4.10 ERA. He's allowed nine runs in 19 1/3 frames in his role as Green's sidekick -- skewed slightly by a three-run homer in his first opener game -- but he's gained the Yankees' trust.
That's led to a longer leash that includes a five-inning appearance against Chicago and a chance to face the Astros' daunting lineup twice.
With German's return on the horizon -- in addition to Luis Severino -- Cortes' days aiding the rotation may be numbered. Still, the left-hander has shown the Yankees' brass enough to perhaps stick around as a long reliever. The southpaw may, in fact, get the chance to work one of the London games this weekend as the Yankees use a bullpen game against the Red Sox.
Regardless of his long-term role, Cortes has defied the odds and excelled at low velocity, all while showing the team's brass that the opener strategy can be effective when needed. In a league that's turned towards fireballers, Cortes is something entirely different, which may be the secret to his success. The left-hander has zagged where baseball has zigged, and the Yankees are better for it.