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2022 Fantasy Baseball Year-In-Review: Nestor Cortes

nestor cortes jr. fantasy baseball rankings draft sleepers pitchers waiver wire pickups

Very few players came out of nowhere to become fantasy baseball heroes quite like Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes. The one they call Nasty Nestor was an afterthought during draft season, but the Hialeah Kid went on to be one of the most valuable early-season pickups, while Cortes himself picked up some cool new nicknames.

Cortes wrapped up the draft season with an average draft position of 306th overall and was the 127th pitcher drafted on average, according to FantasyPros ADP tracking. He blew those projections out of the water. Cortes made 28 starts and finished 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 163 strikeouts across 158.1 innings to finish as the 37th-ranked player overall and the 13th-most valuable starting pitcher in 5x5 leagues, according to Yahoo!

Depending on when he was picked up, Cortes was a fantasy superstar compared to preseason expectations. But can the Yankee lefty carry that success over into 2023 when he won't sneak up on anyone in real life or fantasy baseball? We'll break down the season that was for the first-time All-Star below.

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Bronx Legend

The story of Cortes can't be told without detailing his struggles to break into the Majors. Cortes was released by three different teams - Baltimore, Seattle, and even the Yankees - before winding up back in the Bronx with a chance to start for a contending team.

Cortes and his pet turtle "Bronxy" became fan favorites in the 2021 postseason as fans rallied behind the former 36th-round draft pick flummoxing MLB hitters with his quirky pitching style.

Cortes is so much more than a master of deception, though.

Out of 62 pitchers to log at least 150 innings pitched, Cortes' 0.92 WHIP ranked third, behind only Justin Verlander and Zac Gallen, and just ahead of Shane McClanahan and Yu Darvish. Those four hurlers were drafted hundreds of picks ahead of Cortes this past season, proving just how remarkable Cortes' ascent up the fantasy baseball rankings was.

In addition to keeping runners off the bases, Cortes ranked in the top-five in xERA and the top-20 in FIP all while averaging over a strikeout-per-inning.

His first-career All-Star Game appearance was the cherry on top of a truly remarkable season for a player released thrice in his MLB career.


Out of Nowhere?

As referenced in the intro, it seems like Cortes' success came out of thin air. But did it?

The truth is, Cortes finished the 2021 season on a tear, but no one gave it much credence as the sample size wasn't large enough to believe it was anything other than a hot streak from an average-at-best hurler.

In his last nine starts in 2021, Cortes pitched to a 3.08 ERA with 57 strikeouts across 49.2 innings, fairly impressive stuff from mid-August through the end of the season.

Unflattering advanced metrics made it easy to dismiss that strong finish. Over that span, Cortes' 4.08 FIP and 4.28 xFIP made it appear he was the benefactor of some good luck and that his ERA should've been at least a run higher.

While the skill-based metrics to end 2021 can't be fully ignored, it appears Cortes discovered something in that stretch that he carried into his breakout 2022 season. Hindsight is always 20/20, and in this case, Cortes' stellar 2022 season retroactively proves that his strong finish in 2021 was no fluke.

Furthermore, having more than one season of strong pitching from Cortes boosts his chances of being productive again next season.


Built For Success: 2023 and Beyond 

Now that we've established Cortes was a fantasy stud in 2022 and that his success didn't materialize out of thin air, the big question is: can he continue this success in 2023?

The best way to answer this is to dig deeper into Cortes' arsenal and, spoiler alert, the pitch-by-pitch numbers are dazzling.

Pitch # BAA xBA Whiff%
4-seam 1,083 .157 .183 25.4%
Cutter 734 .191 .227 24.5%
Slider 462 .268 .238 20.8%
Changeup 109 .241 .196 20%

As we can see in the chart, opposing hitters batted under .200 versus Cortes' top two offerings and all four of his pitches generated whiffs at least 20 percent of the time.

As impressive and deep as the full arsenal is, everything starts and ends with the four-seam fastball. Cortes' heater ranked second in baseball (again, behind only Verlander) with a -22 run value, according to BaseballSavant. His 31.3% K-rate on four-seamers ranked fifth in baseball among 70 pitchers to end at least 200 at-bats with fastballs.

Looking at Cortes' stats on his four-seamer, you'd expect he's dealing in the upper 90s. However, his heater averaged only 91.8 MPH for the season. How can that be? Every MLB hitter is capable of smacking a 92 MPH fastball?

The answer lies in impeccable control. Cortes walked only 6.2% of batters all season, which contributed to his stellar WHIP.

A well-located fastball is still the most effective pitch in baseball and Cortes is a master of pinpointing the four-seamer to all quadrants of the strike zone versus LHB and RHB.

A deep arsenal combined with a tone-setting fastball seems to be the special sauce that led to the monumental season we just witnessed from Cortes. The good news? That recipe is very repeatable meaning fantasy drafters can expect big things again in 2023.

Including the postseason, Cortes threw 170 innings in 2022 and he tossed 108 in 2021. The Yankees will need to rely heavily on Cortes' left arm again in 2023 and at 28-years-old, Cortes is entering the prime of his career with no workload concerns.

He should be projected to throw at least 170 innings again in 2023 with a great WHIP, good ERA, and over a strikeout-per-inning while backed by a New York lineup that should provide plenty of win potential. Cortes has the upside to be an SP2 with the draft-day cost of an SP3 depending on how many fantasy baseballers buy into his success this past season.

Based on the data above, we should buy into Cortes' continued success next season.

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