*Editor’s Note: The quotes and most of the information in this piece were first reported in 2019 for a story that went unpublished.
It was only natural that Nestor Cortes Jr. was drawn to Orlando Hernández.
A native of Surgidero de Batabanó, Cuba, Cortes Jr. ultimately made his way from the long-isolated island to Miami, just like Hernández did. Unlike Hernández and his brother, Liván, however, Cortes Jr. did not have to defect from his home. Instead, his father won the visa lottery in 1994 when he was just 7 months old. Still, the Cuban connection was more than enough to steer Cortes Jr. toward the contortionist known as El Duque.
Years later, Cortes Jr. has more in common with Hernández than just heritage and ties to the Yankees. It was from watching Hernández that Cortes Jr. first learned that pitchers don’t have to stick to a script. While El Duque was famous for his unique leg kick, he also lacked elite velocity, varied his arm angles, and did whatever he could to mess with a batter’s timing and eye levels. Cortes Jr. embraces a similar approach, regularly throwing from a plethora of release points, pausing his leg mid-delivery, and even quick-pitching to unsuspecting hitters.
He’s a trickster on the hill, just like Hernández once was.
“Obviously, any Cuban-born player would love to be like Orlando Hernández,” Cortes Jr. said in 2019. “But he had to figure out a way to get outs. So I feel like we come from the same side, and I think it’s special.”
Cortes Jr. got to meet his fellow countryman when the four-time World Series champ appeared as a mentor at a few Yankees spring trainings. Now, he too can be described as an entertaining pitcher to watch, if nothing else.
You never know what the unpredictable Cortes Jr. is going to do, like the time on July 24, 2019 when the southpaw left Twins slugger Nelson Cruz wondering if the pitch he had rapidly delivered was even within the rules. Or during the Yankees’ trip to London that summer, when Cortes Jr. brought his multitude of motions overseas to face the Red Sox. That outing included a move in which Cortes Jr. slowly eases into his delivery and pauses with a straight-lined leg kick before suddenly hurtling toward the plate. That one was dubbed “The Nutcracker.”
More recently, Cortes Jr. has incorporated a second leg kick. Because hey, why not?
“It’s kind of snowballed,” said Cortes Jr., noting that he first began experimenting with his uncanny deceits in high school. “The first two or three years of pro ball I didn’t do it enough because I was scared to know my pitching coach’s or the front office’s opinions. So I kind of backed away from it. But throwing 87, 88, 89 miles per hour, you gotta have something else. … I started messing around with it. Nobody told me not to do it, so I just went with it and now it’s become a little out of control.”
What makes Cortes Jr. unique is that he is not the typical creature of habit that baseball is known for breeding, especially among pitchers. His style generally goes against everything pitchers are traditionally taught.
Throw over the top. Keep your delivery simple. Practice your mechanics until they’re easy to replicate. Stay consistent and the same.
“You mean be a robot?” former Yankees catcher Austin Romine once sarcastically asked. “Yeah, they’re trying to get into the same position every time so they can repeat it as much as possible. But, when you’re athletic — and he’s a pretty athletic dude — he can get into different slots and make it happen.”
Another testament to that athleticism: Cortes Jr.’s alternative deliveries are rarely practiced. He doesn’t run through each move when he’s warming up — he doesn’t want to disrupt the command of his normal delivery or tip-off hitters waiting in the on-deck circle — and he never got to throw many tune-up side sessions when he was a Scranton Shuttle long-man reliever. “Here and there I’ll mess around with it and see how it feels before I bring it out to the game,” he said.
When it comes to actually implementing his subterfuge, Cortes Jr. is big on improv. He doesn’t put much advance planning into his alternative deliveries. Instead, he studies hitters as he goes, looking for holes in their stances, monitoring their recent swings and watching to see if they’re not paying attention. Rather than taking signs from his catcher or the dugout, Cortes Jr. gets weird at his own discretion.
“He’s out there making shit up. It’s awesome,” Romine said. “I’ve never seen it.”
“I usually give [my catchers] a heads up and they say, 'Hey, do you. I'll catch it. Don’t worry,’” Cortes Jr. explained. “It’s usually a feel thing for me and they tell me that they'll be ready. They tell me to do what I gotta do to get outs. If that means throw under the ground, then so be it.”
Cortes Jr.’s curious capers don’t always work, but they garnered plenty of attention in 2019, his first season seeing significant time in the majors after the Orioles returned him to the Yankees as a Rule 5 pick in April 2018. His randomness on the mound has made for quality video content, and he’s even been the subject of a few Pitching Ninja GIFs, treatment typically reserved for hurlers with more dominant stuff.
“I guess it’s a privilege to be up there because you've gotta be nasty, but I’m not nasty,” said the self-aware lefty, who just so happened to be wearing a Pitching Ninja shirt. “I’m just doing different stuff. I’m tricky.”
Or, as bullpen coach Mike Harkey bluntly put it: “His stuff is pretty average across the board. He has to give himself an edge. By messing with a guy’s timing, that’s where his edge comes in.”
Cortes Jr., aided by his ruses, saw mixed results in 2019. Optioned up and down between the minors and the majors like a yo-yo, he, along with several other pitchers, served as an interchangeable part in the Yankees bullpen, summoned to The Show depending on the number of tired arms the team had in its bullpen. Cortes Jr. also played the role of piggybacker; he was often the first to come in after the Yankees used an opener.
Cortes Jr. appeared in 33 games in 2019 while pitching to a 5.67 ERA. He was then traded to Seattle in November. He tossed just 7.2 innings for the Mariners in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — one of which included Albert Pujols being rather unfazed by Cortes Jr.’s put-you-to-sleep delivery. He finished the year with a 15.26 ERA.
Now 26, Cortes Jr. is back with New York. He was a non-roster invitee at spring training and was called up from Triple-A on May 30. He has since thrown 12.1 innings across four relief appearances. The owner of a 1.46 ERA, Cortes Jr.’s three shutout frames against the Athletics on Saturday proved vital to a comeback Yankees’ win.
Cortes Jr. took over the game for Domingo Germán in the fifth with nobody out and runners on the corners. The Bombers were already trailing 4-1, but Cortes Jr. stopped the bleeding by striking out Ramón Laureano and Matt Chapman before inducing a fly out. Another strikeout of Chapman allowed Cortes Jr. to strand two more runners in the seventh. The Yankees ultimately won, 7-5.
Cortes Jr., of course, reached into his deep bag of tricks during the outing.
“They love all the stuff I’ve done out there so far, but I don't want that to get in the way of the most important goal, which is to win a game,” Cortes Jr. said, referring to his coaches. “If they don’t like it, they can tell me and I will shut it down immediately. Whatever they think is right, I’m going to go for it.”
Clearly, the Yankees are just fine with the pitcher’s quirky methods. So long as Cortes Jr. continues to produce results, expect him to keep delivering odd offerings from the mound.
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