Q&A: Nestor Cortes on what drives him, his dad's influence

April 17th, 2023

In a recent sit-down with MLB.com at Yankee Stadium, Nestor Cortes answered a wide range of topics from his early struggles in the big leagues to his perseverance with the Yankees.

MLB.com: After your great start against the Twins this past Friday, you said something that caught my ear. You said, “The big question for me from everybody is, can he continue to do it? I’m out there not allowing the noise to dictate what I am or who I can be.” When did you stop hearing the noise?

Cortes: I thought the more repetitions I got out on the mound, it became less and less noisy. I want to say it happened in 2021, when I was coming out of the bullpen and I was having success. It wasn’t until July 4 when I made my first start that year. Some people were battling injuries, some people were battling Covid and I just received the opportunity to start. I threw 94 innings that year. It was so crazy for me because I started off in Triple-A. I worked out of the bullpen to eat up innings to potentially become a starter. Along the way, I thought that confidence that I created within myself allowed me to block out all the outside noise.

MLB.com: Did someone help you block out the noise?

Cortes: All the guys with the Yankees have helped me in their own individual way. As far as going out and performing and not worrying about things, it was from past experiences I went through. Not being a good pitcher in the big leagues or not having success allowed me to remind myself that I’m out here for a purpose. I probably shouldn’t be here. I remind myself every day that I’m just happy to be here.

MLB.com: Why do you say, "I probably shouldn’t be here?"

Cortes: Coming through the Minor Leagues, I was throwing 87-88 miles per hour. I wasn’t very big. I didn’t have the nasty pitches, so people didn’t see me as a high-level prospect. At best, I think people thought I would be a long man or a fifth starter. That’s why I say I should have never been here. Obviously, now, the tide has turned.

MLB.com: After Friday’s game, you also said, “The first three years in the big leagues were tough, but it’s about time that people start turning the corner, just like I have.” It sounds like you feel people think what you are doing is a fluke. Why do you say that?

Cortes: I read it everyday on Twitter. People think I’m not for real. People think this could end soon, and it can. I’m not saying it’s going to be forever. I accepted the fact that my first three years weren’t any good and I turned a corner from that. I expect people to do the same. That’s what I meant from that. Every time I go out there, I try to pitch my best. I do what I can do. Hopefully, people start giving me more credit for it.

MLB.com: You are having another good year. Why?

Cortes: It’s only been three starts, but hopefully I can continue to keep that standard to myself and keep performing, and keep giving my team an opportunity to win. That’s the biggest key for me.

MLB.com: What is your best moment in baseball so far as a Yankee?

Cortes: I have two moments: Playing in the All-Star Game, and winning my first playoff game [against the Guardians in the American League Division Series last year]. The All-Star Game -- that’s a game I watched from afar, and I never would have believed that I would be participating in one.

As far as winning a game in the playoffs, a lot of pitchers get evaluated on what they do in the playoffs. It’s the winning pedigree you want to create. I think winning in the playoffs is really important for me … so people can count on me. The team can think they have a chance every time I’m out there on the mound.

MLB.com: Another thing that people don’t talk about is that you played hurt in the American League Championship Series against the Astros last year. You shouldn’t have played in Game 4 because you had a groin injury.

Cortes: My competitive side brought that to me. Maybe when Boonie [Manager Aaron Boone] came out that first time, I should have gotten out of the game before the [Jeremy Peña] home run. But I wasn’t going to give up. I thought I was good enough to maybe weather that storm and potentially pitch out of it. Obviously, things went the wrong way.

After we lost, I told Boonie I was sorry. And he said, “Why?” I said, “Well, because I let my competitive side take over my emotions on the mound. I should have done what was right for the team, which is get out of that moment and have somebody that was healthy pitch and not give up the three-run homer.” Boonie immediately hugged me and said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. I know you are out there competing your tail off and you want to do the best for us.”

MLB.com: Even though things have been going well, you always talk about your first three years in the big leagues. You went so far to say that you were in the gutter. Did you ever think you would ever get out of the gutter?

Cortes: No. Never. So I was a Rule 5 [Draft pick] to the Orioles and I made my debut in 2018. The team was going in a different direction. They were about to trade a lot of guys. They were rebuilding. I thought that was my opportunity to stick in the big leagues and make a name for myself. But when I was DFA’d from the Orioles, I went back to Triple-A and I said, “My career might be over because I just got DFA’d from one of the teams that is [rebuilding].”

I went back to the Yankees, and these guys are hunting first place every year. I don’t know if I'll ever make it back just because of that.

MLB.com: When I think of Nestor Cortes, perseverance is the first word that comes to mind. Why were you not discouraged?

Cortes: I would say baseball is the only thing I know how to do. I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old. I said this many times to friends and family after they asked if I thought of quitting: I always said no because it’s the only thing I wanted to do since I was 4 years old.

I don’t have a college degree. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m not a specialist in anything else. If baseball was over for me, I would have to work a regular 9 to 5 because I don’t have anything else to fall back on. I told myself I was going to ride this out until people took the jersey off my back.

MLB.com: You realize you can still go to college, right?

Cortes: [Laughing] I know, but that is not in the plans.

MLB.com: What was the turning point? Name the people who said, you can still play the game and keep on truckin’.

Cortes: It started with my parents. They obviously knew what I was going through. They still kept me to a standard to keep going and not quit.

Also, when I went to Seattle in 2020, when I got hurt, I spoke to then-Triple A pitching coach Rob Marcello. We sat down and dove into what made me good in the Minor Leagues. There were a lot of things that stood out that I wasn’t doing in the big leagues. We dove deep into analytics that I could maybe fix quickly. My season was over because I was hurt. So it wasn’t until 2021 that I could try those improvements.

When I signed back with the Yankees in 2021, I just fell into the best group of guys that I know about pitching. [Pitching coach] Matt Blake, everybody that is here now helped me develop and create who I am right now.

MLB.com: What did you develop that turned your career around?

Cortes: I worked with the strength coaches -- Eric Cressey, Brett McCabe, all these guys in the weight room. We got a little stronger in different positions I wasn’t accustomed to, and I started throwing harder. That’s one of the biggest reasons for my success as of late. I’m able to miss over the plate more and not get hurt much by it. In 2018 and ‘19, I wasn’t throwing as hard, and any little mistake, I would pay for it. Now that my fastball has a little more life, it’s helped me navigate the lineups better, and it has made my cutter a lot better. That has been my bread and butter.

MLB.com: I have to ask you about Nestor Cortes Sr. Did he have the same perseverance as you?

Cortes: He is a hard worker, blue collar, ever since I can remember. He never missed a day at his work. He never said, "I’m going to call off tomorrow." So that made me realize you have to work for things to obtain stuff in life.

He came over to the states [from Cuba] when he was 26 and my mom [Yuslaidy] was 19. So coming to the states at a relatively young age with no family here and a newborn, they had perseverance because they had to go out and get their own to provide for me. All the sacrifices they made for themselves and for me made me realize all the things that I’m fortunate to have, and not give up on stuff.

MLB.com: Nestor Sr. drove a forklift, correct?

Cortes: He drove a forklift for 26 years.

MLB.com: Is he still doing that work?

Cortes: No. I asked him to take some time off. He is taking care of some stuff down in Miami as far as real estate goes. He is helping me that way. I’m giving him a little something for that. He comes to New York every once in a while to watch me play. That is one of the biggest blessings for me is to have my parents come up and watch me pitch.