I’m sure you’ve heard, that Nestor Cortes is going to the 2022 MLB All-Star game. Additionally, if you follow the Yankees you know that Cortes has been very good for the team for over a calendar year at this point.
He’s been getting beat up pretty good recently.
Over his last six starts, Cortes has thrown 28.2 innings, posted an ERA of 5.34, a FIP of 6.04, and opponents have slashed a pretty scary .274/.315/.564 batting average, OBP, SLG line against him. (Prior to that he had a 1.50 ERA, 2.46 FIP with an opponents’ slash line of .178/.231/.280.)
What’s most alarming is the rate at which balls are leaving the yard. Over his first ten starts, Cortes faced 229 batters and allowed only four long balls, for a minuscule 0.017% HR rate. Since then he’s faced 124 batters and allowed nine home runs for a rate more than four times higher than it was over the season’s first two months.
Let’s pause here for a reminder: Home runs totals are far more random than most folks realize*. The park(s) you happen to be playing in is an enormous factor. The weather, which obviously changes as the season wears on, is a factor. The baseballs being used are an enormous factor and it’s clear the Hacky Sacks that were used early in the 2022 season have been replaced by Titleists.
(*If you’re unsure the extent to which home run totals are random, remember that Mark Trumbo, Chris Carter, and Pedro Álvarez have home run titles within the past decade.)
Combined with the fact that Cortes is a fly ball pitcher (18th highest fly ball rate out of 84 qualified pitchers through June 2nd), I started wondering if his luck had run out on allowing so many fly balls. Perhaps randomness and good fortune were really on his side over the season’s first two months and the scales of chance are balancing themselves out.
When we dig a little deeper, we see this “may” be the case. Cortes’ flyball rate, which was high to begin with, shot to the second-highest in MLB over his last six starts. As you might expect, the percentage of fly balls that are reaching the seats also rose dramatically, as his HR to fly ball rate more than doubled going from 6.6% over his first 10 starts to 16.4% since. For what it’s worth, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) also rose significantly, going from .239 over his first ten starts to .284 since. (The .239 was the seventh-lowest in MLB at the time, while the .284 put him in the bottom half of the league.)
It’s hard to think that such a drastic change in both HR/FB rate and BABIP didn’t involve at least “some” luck – good luck over the first two months to bad luck since.
But it’s more than that.
He’s been giving up significantly harder contact over his last six starts than he had prior as well. After his start on June 2nd, Cortes had allowed an average exit velocity of 87.9 mph to opposing batters – since then batters have been smoking balls to the tune of a 92.1 mph exit velocity. Going from a SLG allowed of .280 to a SLG allowed of .564 isn’t just bad luck – it’s due to plenty of pitches finding middle/middle in the zone. Given that his strikeout and walk rates have regressed slightly but are still very good, that’s what I’m going with.
Cortes’ command simply hasn’t been good over his last six starts, and as a result, many pitches that were on the edges early in the season are finding a little more plate lately and Major League hitters are doing what they do. Combine that with some randomness and you’ll get the major downswing in performance we’ve seen lately from the Yanks’ All-Star.
This brings us back to the original question, “Should we be worried?”
Worried probably isn’t the right word. As noted, he’s been a better-than-average pitcher for over one year now, and obviously, six starts is a very small sample size.
But I think we can also agree that it’s likely he was the beneficiary of some good fortune over the season’s first two months and he’s not going to be the left-handed version of Juan Marichal (the master of varying releases, angles and wind-ups) ongoing.
He’s scheduled to start Thursday night against a team with the third-worst OPS+ in MLB. (Don’t be distracted by the Reds’ runs per game which is about average – that’s due to them playing half of their games in a bandbox.) Hopefully, we’ll see “Nasty” get back on track.
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