Nestor Cortes thinks his mustache deserves a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
"It's a super power," the New York Yankees left-hander said. "It came at the right time."
For Cortes and his inner circle, his major league career is separated into two distinct periods: Before Mustache and After Mustache.
"Since he got the mustache, look at the numbers," says Yankees area scout Carlos Marti, who signed Cortes. "It has powers."
In the days before the mustache, Cortes dabbled with facial hair, wearing a goatee for a time and even a full beard. But he never found a footing in the majors: In his first three years, he pitched for three teams, posting a 6.72 ERA with a 1.709 WHIP in 42 games across 79 innings in the big leagues, striking out 9.1 batters per nine innings while walking 4.3. His confidence kept taking hits, too, particularly after the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles designated him for assignment in 2019, and again when he struggled with the Seattle Mariners in 2020.
But in May 2021, Cortes grew his now-distinctive facial hair -- and also happened to supplement his arsenal of pitches. Since that transformation, Cortes has a 2.35 ERA with a 0.994 WHIP in 32 games across 153 innings, striking out 10.1 batters per nine while walking 2.3. It's a turnaround that has the 27-year-old leading MLB with a 1.50 ERA heading into his start Wednesday night in Minnesota. He has posted 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings, making him the owner of the league's 10th-best strikeout rate -- even with its 10th-slowest fastball.
"It's a special start to the season," said Yankees manager Aaron Boone. "He's got a lot of things going for him, he's got weapons and he can really pitch, but he's got that Nestor savvy out there and it serves him well in whatever situation he has out there."
The mustachioed Cortes has become a leading member of one of the best starting rotations in baseball, a Yankees staff that, along with perennial Cy Young Award candidate Gerrit Cole, has gotten stellar performances out of the gate from Jameson Taillon, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery. The Yankees have the best record in baseball and their starting staff tops all of baseball in fWAR by a significant margin. Cortes -- known these days as "Nasty Nestor" -- is even in prime position to start the All-Star Game, just five years after being let go by one of the worst teams in the league.
"Every time I get past the sixth inning, I need to pinch myself," Cortes said. "Coming up as a reliever throwing one or two innings, barely getting out of the second inning, and now I'm here throwing six innings? Pinch me."
SOMETIMES WHEN CORTES is in the Yankees clubhouse, he steps outside his body. He sees teammates walking around him, such as Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Cole -- stars plastered on billboards -- and wonders where he fits in.
"Is this for real?" Cortes said. "What am I doing here?"
When he was 7 months old, Cortes' family moved to the United States from Surgidero de Batabanó, Cuba, after his father won a visa lottery. His father worked as a forklift driver in Hialeah, Florida, his mom as a manicurist. With financial help from his coaches, whom his parents always insisted on paying back, Cortes played ball in travel leagues growing up. As he entered his late teens, he dreamed of following in the footsteps of other players from the Miami area who had recently made it to the big leagues -- such as Anthony Rizzo, Manny Machado and his baseball role model, Gio Gonzalez.
As the 2013 draft neared, Cortes was graduating from Hialeah High School, but he was unsure about his major league prospects. He committed to pitch at Florida International, with Miami Dade County as backup, but Marti, who had coached Cortes in middle school before taking the scouting job with the Yankees, told Cortes he was confident he could play at the big league level and began advocating for him with the Yankees' front office.
With nine rounds left in the draft, Marti let Cortes know he was 10th on the list of players the Yankees wanted. As other teams selected names ahead of Cortes, Marti followed Yankees vice president and director of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer to the bathroom, making one last push for the team to take Cortes.
"I just waited for him outside the door," Marti said. "He was not happy, man."
But Marti got his way -- the Yankees drafted Cortes in the 36th round, and he signed a contract for an $85,000 bonus. Cortes played in rookie ball for three years before climbing his way up the minor league ladder, struggling financially and eating Little Caesars pizza for dinner three times a week. In Double-A in 2017, he started playing with timing on the mound to compensate for his lack of velocity, experimenting with different windup speeds and pauses. When the Yankees did not add Cortes to their 40-man roster after he posted a 2.06 ERA across three minor league levels, the Orioles drafted him in the Rule 5.
He believed he had finally arrived. But the reality was different. In four games for Baltimore, he allowed 10 hits, two homers, four runs, two walks and struck out three. The Orioles returned him to the Yankees after two weeks. He struggled in 2019, posting a 5.67 ERA in 33 games at the major league level.
"They were the last team in baseball," Cortes said. "I got DFA'ed by the worst team in baseball. How am I ever going to make a big league squad with another team?"
THERE WAS NO backup plan. Cortes didn't go to college and had no idea what a job outside of baseball would look like. He once dreamed of being a marine biologist, but the idea of going back to school intimidated him. He needed to make baseball work.
So he decided he needed to change. Through the second half of 2020 and in the offseason leading into 2021, Cortes revamped his entire repertoire, changing the grip on his fastball to create more backspin while adding a slider and a cutter. While training with then-Tacoma Rainiers pitching coach Rob Marcello and working on his stuff in the Dominican Winter League, Cortes slowly built his confidence back up. He learned to lean into what made him different -- his movement and deception -- in order to stand out.
By May 2021, Cortes was in Triple-A, back in the Yankees system, but with a newfound confidence. Cortes decided he needed to mark this new chapter in his life, symbolizing his increased conviction in himself. His belief in his ability to pitch -- and stay -- in the major leagues.
He decided to grow the mustache.
When Cortes got the call back to the big leagues with his new look, teammates teased him. He ignored them.
"It's part of what makes him unique and special," said Boone in July 2021. "I made fun of him a little bit for it, but it's perfect."
Whether due to his new facial hair or his improved arsenal -- or both -- Cortes' performance improved immediately. The cutter, slider and bump in velocity proved crucial. From 2020 to 2022, his percentage of first-pitch strikes increased from 61.4% to 71.1% with hitters swinging at pitches outside the zone increasing from 16.1% to 30.3%.
Combined with his unusual timing mechanisms on the mound, Cortes experienced a breakout 2021 campaign with the Yankees and solidified a spot in the rotation for 2022, and he is establishing himself as one of the sport's best pitchers so far this season. He has helped rally the clubhouse, too, famously adopting a team turtle named Bronxie during the 2021 stretch run. (Bronxie now lives in a nearby community center, where he is "well taken care of," Cortes said. "We're gonna go visit him in a few weeks.")
His breakout has led to an onslaught of messages pouring in from his hometown. For Hialeah, Cortes represents a source of inspiration. Jonathan Hernandez -- who worked with Cortes as his pitching coach at Hialeah High and now serves as head coach of the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats -- said Cortes' upbringing in Hialeah provided him the mental strength to work through his struggles.
"People from Hialeah, everything we get is earned. Nothing is every given," Hernandez said. "Like in poker, all Nestor needed was some chips and a chair. He bet on himself."
Cortes saw many more talented teammates give up while trying to make the big leagues.
He thinks about home, how so many people struggle to get out of their circumstances, how so many people find troubles. He thinks back to his dad working early mornings to pay off the loans for his travel baseball expenses. He remembers all it took to end up on the mound at Yankee Stadium.
"It gives me a reason to believe," Cortes said. "A reason to keep striving every day."
If he's ever in doubt, though, there's always another source of confidence -- right under his nose.
"Ever since the mustache came, I've been pitching well," Cortes said. "Hopefully for years to come, I can keep this mustache."