Sunday Notes: Nestor Cortes Jr. Brings Lefty Funk Out of the Yankees’ Bullpen

In terms of notoriety, Nestor Cortes Jr. barely registers a blip on the national radar. That’s not meant as a slight to the 24-year-old lefty. It’s just that when you play for a star-studded team — in baseball’s largest market, no less — it’s hard to make a name for yourself as a rookie reliever. More specifically, a soft-tossing rookie reliever who lasted until the 36th round of the 2013 draft.

He’s probably the most unique member of the 2019 New York Yankees. Born in Surgidero de Batabano, Cuba, and raised in Hialeah, Florida, Cortes has a little Luis Tiant in his windup — Oliver Perez would be a contemporary comp — and his lack of giddy-up is more of a wrinkle than a scar. He’s averaging better than a strikeout per inning with a heater that lives south of 90.

“I’m more of a deception pitcher,” said Cortes, whose 5.13 ERA is accompanied by an unblemished 5-0 record. “The cliche is that everybody throws 95 now, but what I do is try to mess up timing. The multiple windups I use, the spin rate on my fastball, hiding the ball well before I go to home plate… I try to abide by all of that. I cherish that I can use those things to my advantage.”

Those attributes are on display in The Bronx because the Orioles opted not to keep him. Cortes was a Rule 5 pick by Baltimore in December 2017, but after appearing in just four games last April he was returned to his original club. He spent the remainder of the season in Triple-A with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RoughRiders.

The aforementioned multiple windups became part of his M.O. in Triple-A. Cortes already threw from multiple arm slots — that dates back to high school — and alternating between slow, quicker, and fast provided another way to confound hitters. Perez played a role. Cortes and the 38-year-old journeyman southpaw, now with the Cleveland Indians, were 2018 teammates in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

“I got to watch him a little bit, and that’s kind of how I added things like ‘straight leg up, then turn toward home plate,’ Cortes said of Perez, whose multitudinous deliveries are his signature. “It was working for me down there, so I said to myself, ‘Why change?”

His velocity hasn’t changed much either. Cortes was throwing 87-88 when he was drafted out of high school, and he remains more Moyer than most-guys-these-days. No matter. When I asked the lefty if it takes big cojones to attack hitters with a sub-90 fastball, especially upstairs, his answer came with a shrug and a smile.

“Yes it does,” said Cortes, “but it plays up there. Our analytics guys, and all of the pitching coaches, have told me, ‘Hey, your fastball is good enough to pitch up in the zone; don’t be scared.’ So I know that I can pitch up in the zone, and then throw something off-speed under the zone. That’s how you’re going to get people out, basically.”

True enough — the lefty with the funky deliveries also features a slider, a changeup, and an occasional curveball — but again, he’s velocity-challenged at a time where mid-90s is the norm. He acknowledges that’s he’s largely a square peg in a round hole.

“You rarely see guys throwing 87-89, but I do different arm angles and different windups,” said Cortes.”You don’t see many guys disrupting timing like that. Maybe two or three other pitchers in the league? I’d say I’m unique in that way.”

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Jim Kaat was 23 years old when he developed the fastball grip he used throughout the bulk of his 25-year MLB career. He learned it from a fellow left-hander who went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“I was pitching against Whitey Ford,” recalled Kaat, who at 80 years young is now an MLB Network analyst. “We were in the old Metropolitan Stadium, and you could hear Whitey’s ball going ‘whoosh’; you could hear it sinking. I was thinking, ‘I wonder if I went over and asked Whitey how he held his fastball?’ I’m pitching against him! But I did, and he showed me how he gripped it. He said, ‘I grip it with my fingertips and lay my thumb my on it, real loose.’ That was in 1962 and I threw my fastball like that for the next 21 years.”

Kaat pitched for five teams, primarily the Minnesota Twins, from 1959-1983. He appeared in 898 games, tossed 4,530 innings, and was credited with 283 wins. That last of those numbers is fifth-most among non-Hall of Famers.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Chick Starr went 3 for 4 against Ivy Andrews.

Charlie Starr went 4 for 17 against Bugs Raymond.

Starling Marte is 1 for 25 against Johnny Cueto.

Doug McWeeny went 0 for 23 against Charlie Root.

David Murphy went 4 for 4 against Justin Masterson.

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On Wednesday, Cincinnati’s Michael Lorenzen pitched, played center field, and homered in the same game. The following day, I asked Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli who on his team would be most capable of doing that.

“He’s a pretty unique guy,” Baldelli said of Lorenzen. “I remember watching him in college and I think there were a lot of teams interested in him as a position player just as much as they were as a pitcher. [But] I don’t want to put any ideas in any of our players’ heads. I don’t think we’re going to see any of our guys doing that. We have some talented guys that could figure some things out, but they don’t have that kind of background.”

As fair and reasonable as that answer was, a follow-up question was in order. Intuiting that he didn’t want to name names, I asked if an outfielder or a pitcher would more-likely fit the bill if it actually were to happen.

“Our pitchers like to think they can do some things,” responded Baldelli, only partially taking the bait. “But I’m not really going to go there right now. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think they need to lock in on everything going on.”

As for position players, Baldelli did allow that some of his outfielders have “tremendously-strong arms.” That prompted The Athletic’s Dan Hayes to bring up the fact that Byron Buxton used to pitch, and was once clocked at 95 mph. And then there are the infielders. Baldelli expressed that “Miguel Sano can really throw,” adding that “Jonathan Schoop has an incredible arm.”

Reading between the lines — adjusting my thinking cap as I do — the most-likely Twin to do a Lorenzen is quite likely Buxton. A member of the Minnesota pitching staff doing so would be especially remarkable given team annals. Not counting catcher-by-trade Chris Gimenez, the last Twins pitcher to go deep was Jim Kaat in… drum roll please, 1972.

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Sticking with the Twins, Baldelli was asked about Nelson Cruz numerous times during the Boston series. The 39-year-old slugger’s non-quantifiable value was brought up often, which is especially notable when you consider that he has 35 home runs and a 1.011 OPS. Baldelli was consistently effusive in his praise, saying in one of his media sessions that Cruz “changes all the dynamics in the clubhouse, the dugout, everywhere, just by who he is. He has a tremendous presence.”

Last winter, not long after Minnesota inked Cruz to a free agent deal, Baldelli told me his team’s newest addition would be “[A] great person for the clubhouse. Even without actively trying to be a leader, he’ll be a leader for us by just being himself.” I reminded Baldelli of that, then asked if Cruz has actually exceeded expectations in that regard.

“I’d say yes,” Minnesota’s manager responded. “And our expectations were very high coming in. I’d say he’s not just as advertised, he’s better.”

For better or for worse, the MVP award is subjective. Even so, Cruz isn’t going to be so honored this year — hello Michael Nelson Trout — and given that 16 American League players have more WAR, he probably shouldn’t be. That said, Cruz’s value to the Twins — the first place Twins — is immeasurable.

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NON-MLB NOTABLES

Yusniel Padron-Artilles, a 21-year-old Cuban-born right-hander in the Red Sox system, struck out 12 consecutive batters on Thursday night in a New York-Penn League playoff game. A 22nd-round pick last year out of Miami Dade College, Padron-Artilles had a 2.67 ERA in 64 regular-season innings with Boston’s short-season affiliate.

Cesar Izturis Jr., a 19-year-old middle infielder in the Seattle Marines system, slashed .259/.324/.302 this season between short-season Everett and low-A West Virginia. The switch-hitting native of Venezuela is the son of former big-league infielder Cesar Izturis.

Hyun-il Choi, a 19-year-old right-hander in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, had a 2.63 ERA, and 71 strikeouts in 65 innings, in the rookie-level Arizona League. A native of Seoul, South Korea, Choi was signed by LA in August of last year.

Carlos Perez, an 18-year-old right-hander in the Rockies system, had a 0.86 ERA in 52 innings with Colorado’s Dominican Summer League affiliate. The native of Maracay, Venezuela was signed in December 2017.

Kodai Senga, a 26-year-old right-hander for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, tossed the 91st no-hitter in NPB history on Friday. It was the Hawks’ first no-hitter since Takehiko Bessho turned the trick in 1943. Reportedly interested in bringing his talents to MLB, Senga has won 12 of 19 decisions and has a 2.92 ERA on the season.

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Last Sunday’s column included Larry Andersen’s recollection of Dennis Eckersley having thrown a screwball when the two were teammates with class-A Reno in 1972. Andersen was in his second professional season at the time, while Eckersley, fresh out of high school, was just beginning his. As the former described it to me, “[Eckersley] would turn the ball over like a changeup, but he threw it harder and that thing would just bottom out. It was filthy.”

But while Andersen used the term, was it actually a screwball? Wanting a definitive answer, I went directly to the source to find out.

Eckersley told me earlier this week that his former teammate, and longtime friend, wasn’t entirely accurate with his definition.

“I did turn it over,” Eckerley explained, “but it wasn’t a screwball. Not like the pitch Bill Campbell threw.”

So what was it? According to the ever-entertaining Eckersley “It was a nasty-ass sinker.”

——

I recently picked up a copy Alex Speier’s Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion From the Ground Up, and two chapters into the book I’ve already learned a lot. Here are two examples:

The August 2012 mega-deal that saw the Red Sox trade Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers wasn’t initiated by the teams’ respective GMs. What got the ball rolling was a phone call from Dodgers president Stan Kasten to Red Sox CEO/president Larry Lucchino. Kasten told his contemporary, “We’re looking to take on some high-priced, high-quality players, so if you’re thinking of moving any of yours, don’t forget us.”

In 2011, the Red Sox offered fifth-round pick Mookie Betts a signing bonus of “around $350,000,” while Betts, a University of Tennessee commit, was seeking $750,000. With the midnight deadline to sign draft picks fast approaching — Betts was packing for his dorm at 11:30 pm — Theo Epstein told then-scouting director Amiel Sawdaye, “If you guys really believe this guy is an everyday big leaguer, what are we holding back on? We have the money in the budget, just give him what he wants.” Betts was signed for $750,000.

The entire first chapter of “Homegrown” — 26 pages in all — focuses on the Red Sox draft process, with an extensive and detailed blow-by-blow recap of the hour leading into the signing deadline. Boston having had eight picks in the first five rounds that year, with most not signing until literally the final moments, makes the account all the more compelling.

If you’re interested in what happens behind the scenes in an MLB front office, whether you’re a fan of the Red Sox or not, Speier’s book is highly recommended.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Writing for Forbes, Wayne G. McDonnell Jr told us about an unbreakable bond between the Moran brothers, Brian and Colin, based on six pitches.

Bob Klapisch wrote about the dying art of the manager meltdown — blame technology — for The New York Times.

On September 14, 1969, Indians southpaw Sam McDowell got tossed, then tossed the ball into the upper deck. Austin Gisreal chronicled the happening for SABR’s Game Project.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The Arizona Diamondbacks have won 11 of their last 12 games are now within two games of the National League’s second Wild Card. Their only defeat in that stretch was an 11-inning loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

San Francisco Giants reliever Will Smith leads all MLB pitchers with 4.36 WPA. Houston Astros righty Justin Verlander is second, with 3.71.

The Houston Astros have 93 wins and their relievers have combined to record 39 saves. The San Diego Padres have 65 wins and their relievers have combined to record 46 saves.

The 2018 Red Sox were the first American League team since the 1984 Detroit Tigers with at least six homegrown players under 30 years old on the field or in the lineup when they clinched the World Series (This note courtesy of “Homegrown.”)

On September 7, 1970, Hal Haydel made his MLB debut with the Minnesota Twins, relieving Luis Tiant in the second inning of a game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Haydel doubled and homered in his first two plate appearances, and pitched five innings for the win.

Dizzy Nutter debuted with the Boston Braves on September 7, 1919 and proceeded to record nine hits in his first 29 at bats. He proceeded to go 2-for-23, never again to appear in a big-league game.

On September 12, 1925, Tex Jeanes hit his only career home run to help lead the Washington Senators to a 13-3 win over the Boston Red Sox. Muddy Ruel went 3 for 3 with four RBIs.

In 1893, Brickyard Kennedy went 25-20 with the National League’s Brooklyn Grooms. The following year he went 24-20. In each of those seasons he fanned 107 batters and allowed 15 home runs. Following a big-league career in which he won 187 games from 1892-1903, Kennedy had minor-league stints with the Wheeling Stogies and the Dayton Old Soldiers.

Colonel Snover appeared in two big-league games, both with the New York Giants in 1919, and went 0-1 with a 1.00 ERA. Snover’s nickname was Bosco.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Nestor Cortes Jr. Brings Lefty Funk Out of the Yankees’ Bullpen by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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“The 2018 Red Sox were the first American League team since the 1984 Detroit Tigers with at least six homegrown players 30 years old on the field or in the lineup when they clinched the World Series (This note courtesy of “Homegrown.”)”

Under 30 years old, no?