MINNEAPOLIS — Carlos Marti knew Nestor Cortes would be a major league pitcher if he wanted to be in his junior year in high school. Playing for Marti’s travel team in the Connie Mack World Series, the undersized lefty whose fastball didn’t light up any radar guns absolutely dominated the bigger-named players.
The guys like Andrew Benintendi and Max Schrock, who were headed to the big leagues, “they couldn’t hit him,” Marti said. “He just attacked them with his 85-mile-an-hour fastball and they couldn’t touch him.”
That was when Marti, who was also an associate scout for the Yankees at the time, knew if he could get Cortes a chance the kid from Hialeah could himself get to the big leagues.
“I guess I didn’t see him pitching for a Cy Young this year,” Marti said earlier this week with a laugh. “But I knew he was a fighter, I knew he wasn’t afraid and I knew I was going to fight for him.”
That is what Marti did, fighting to get the Yankees to pick Cortes in the 36th round of the 2013 draft. And so far this season, Cortes has rewarded Marti’s belief in him with a brilliant first third of the season. Cortes heads into Wednesday night’s start leading the majors with a 1.50 ERA.
Cortes is in the top 85th percentile in K% at 29.7%, top 76 in hard hit% and 33.6% top 74 in BB%, all while being in the bottom fifth percentile in fastball velocity.
The lefty has been the Yankees’ best pitcher, even though he doesn’t fit the mold. He’s undersized in a rotation full of guys over six feet tall. His fastball his sits 91 miles an hour in a group that can see theirs touch 100.
“He knows how to get outs, he always has,” Marti said.
Cortes had the foundation of being able to figure out ways to get outs when he played for Marti’s Florida Legends team, which also counts Anthony Rizzo and Manny Machado among its MLB alumni.
Back then he understood knew how to pitch. He wasn’t afraid. He attacked hitters. Over the last two years, however, Cortes has refined his repertoire his. He’s added a cutter. The 27-year old has gotten into better shape and he’s changed his approach his. Cortes doesn’t use the gimmicks — dropping arms slots, quick pitching — nearly as much as he did when he first got called up.
You can see his confidence is finally catching up with him in the big leagues, Marti said.
“I think that the first few years he had in the big leagues, he didn’t bring that confidence with him. Nestor has always worked hard and he’s never been afraid to go after hitters, but you could see he didn’t bring the confidence from the minor leagues with him,” Marti said. “Not that he’s arrogant, but you can see that he has the confidence now that he can go out and get outs.”
Cortes’ confidence has come with success and it’s recent. He called pitching coach Matt Blake this winter looking for some reassurance that he would make the 26-man big league roster. Blake made a point of telling Cortes that he belonged in the big leagues, likely as a starter.
It was something Cortes may have heard, but didn’t necessarily keep it in mind. Marti’s advice his to Cortes when he eventually signed with the Yankees, for $ 85,000, was to do whatever he was asked, keep his head down and keep attacking hitters.
That was exactly how Cortes approached his spring training.
“I don’t want to know that I have a spot, that mentality got me here, it’s helped me,” Cortes said. “I pitched in the minors getting outs so I didn’t get cut loose. That’s how I keep thinking.”
With the success and confidence, however, Cortes hasn’t changed, said Marti. They still speak regularly, especially now that Marti’s Florida Legends’ team once again qualified for this year’s Connie Mack World Series and he’s trying to raise money. He said Cortes has always been helpful about giving back to the kids in the neighborhood.
“And now, I have players who want to be just like him,” Marti said. “I have a kid from Mexico, an under-sized pitcher and he is always asking me about Nestor. He wants to know how Nestor did this or did that.
“All the kids are just excited to see him do this,” Marti said. “And so am I. I am so happy for him. He’s the same person he was as a kid. He’s worked so hard, he’s overcome so much. It’s great to see him getting the recognition he deserves.”