Yankees Pitching Coach Matt Blake on the Remaking of Nestor Cortes

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When he was first featured here at FanGraphs three years ago, I wrote that Nestor Cortes “barely registers a blip on the national radar.” With his multiple windups in mind, I called the then-24-year-old southpaw “probably the most unique member of the 2019 New York Yankees.”

A lot has changed since that time. Cortes is still unique — the funkiness and deceptive deliveries remain part of his M.O. — but he’s otherwise a much different pitcher. He’s also become a household name. Traded to Seattle in November 2019, Cortes returned to New York in free agency prior to last season and has since been remade into one of the top starters in the American League. A first-time All-Star with a 2.63 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 95-and-two-thirds innings, Cortes attacks hitters with a different arsenal than the one he employed as an obscure reliever.

How has Cortes evolved, and just as importantly, can he continue to thrive if he doesn’t evolve further? Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake addressed those questions when the team visited Fenway Park earlier this month.

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David Laurila: You’ve obviously been asked about Nestor Cortes numerous times already this season. That said, why has he been so good?

Matt Blake: “When he first started going last year, the league didn’t really know who he was. I mean, they knew of Nestor, but they hadn’t necessarily seen this version of him, where there’s a little bit more velocity [and] the fastball has kind of a true riding profile, one that’s a little bit closer to cut than run. And then the cutter off of that creates a really tough visual for hitters to identify. He’d also added the sweeper slider to be able to slow guys down and steal some strikes.

“Now that he’s gone through the back half of last year and the first half of this year… his game plan is probably a little more limited than your traditional starter, by default. He’s really good at executing a smaller game plan, but I think the league is starting to take note. It’s really on us, as a group, to decide, ‘Do you continue to hammer down on your particular strength, trying to power through other teams game planning for your fastball and cutter, or do you start to move into different areas, add other pitches?’ Basically, does he need to add some variables, some wrinkles, without getting away from what makes him Nestor? That’s the crux of his development now.”

Laurila: He’d presumably gone away from throwing particular pitches, because they didn’t grade out as well…

Blake: “He was throwing a two-seam. He was throwing a softer, more run-oriented four-seam. The cutter wasn’t thrown as hard. The slider didn’t have as much spin; he was throwing more of a curveball. When we bore down on his profiles, we kind of said, ‘These are the best versions, what we want to get to more often.’ All of a sudden, he was giving us more consistently high-quality reps [with pitches] that are harder to put in play or hit hard.

“When he started doing that, it put the league on notice a little bit. It was like, ‘Oh, this guy isn’t going to turn into a pumpkin. He’s real. There’s substance to this, he’s not just this novelty act with the shimmy and the shake, and the drop down.’ And what he’s been doing is real. There are objective measures that say this guy is a high-level starter. Now it’s, ‘OK, how do we continue to build on that?’”

Laurila: What about his non-quantifiable attributes? Those certainly seem to exist.

Blake: “I think the hard-to-quantify is just the deception component. There are some teams out there doing it better than others, and would say that Nestor is one of the more deceptive pitchers in the league. That’s in terms of how his arm stroke works behind his body, how hard it is to see the ball out of his hand, how to decipher if it’s a fastball or cutter because they stay together so long. It’s also such a quick, short stroke. It says 90-91 [mph] on the board, but the fastball probably plays closer to 94-95. And then the cutter is just really hard to distinguish. Nestor does a good job of utilizing that deception.”

Laurila: Can you elaborate on, “Some teams doing it better than others”?

Blake: “There are teams out there that are probably using the biomechanics data in the park to understand deception, objectively, a little bit better than what we’ve traditionally seen. It’s not just a scout in the stands saying qualitatively, ‘Man, there’s life on this fastball, he’s kind of sneaky.’ I think we’re starting to see some trends around the league where teams are able to evaluate that more objectively.”

Laurila: Is vertical approach angle a factor in Cortes’ effectiveness?

Blake: “There’s some of that, kind of how the ball stays true at the top and how hard it is to get on plane with it. He’s had a lot of success pitching up in the zone this year, but he’s also finding some other areas to go to. But I do think there’s an approach angle component.”

Laurila: What about his sweeping slider? That’s something the organization is known for teaching and developing.

Blake: “With Nestor, it was really last spring training when we started getting to it with [then-pitching coordinator] Sam Briend and [then-manager of pitch development] Desi Druschel. Those two kind of spearheaded a lot of our efforts on that front. Nestor was kind of a non-roster free agent and we were looking at, ‘What is going to be a separator for him?’ He didn’t really have a slower, bigger-shaped pitch to get away from the fastball and cutter, so that was something we kind of looked to.

“He didn’t break camp with us, but he went to [Triple-A] Scranton and continued to work on it. It became a more featured piece of his arsenal, and when he came up last year [at the end of May], it was ready to go. It’s continued to evolve — how he uses it, where in the zone, and how often. It’s definitely been a nice add to what he does so well.”

Laurila: How do you go about determining whether a sweeper, or more of a gyro slider, is going to be a better fit for an individual pitcher?

Blake: “There’s definitely some art to it. It’s about understanding what the arsenal currently looks like. Are there are some soft spots in terms of north-south and east-west? How much spin does he have? Does he currently throw a curveball or a slider? How do we change the shapes on those? I feel like it’s more massaging pitches into different areas to pull pitches apart a little bit.

“In this instance, it just seemed like the way Nestor’s body worked, and the way he could spin the ball, it made sense to move him more laterally than north-to-south. That’s obviously not the case for everybody, but for Nestor, it made more sense.”





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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mariodegenzgz
2 months ago

Terrific stuff as per usual. I need the Rockies to clone Matt Blake and make him the pitching coach. You know, to deploy the talents of our pitchers beyond “throw your fastball at the knees, get ahead with fastballs and finish em off with breaking balls in the dirt”. Personalized pitcher dev is it, not that one-size-fits-all approach.