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Shane Bieber versus Nestor Cortes is the marquee matchup of the ALDS

It’s a real ace off in Game 2

Wild Card Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Guardians - Game One Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It’s weird to think that Shane Bieber has pitched in Cleveland for the last five years but only started two playoff games, but here we are.

Despite playing on winning teams all but one year of his career, Bieber is still a baby when it comes to postseason experience. He wasn’t cemented as a fixture in the rotation yet in 2018, and he bombed against the Bronx Bomers in the only game he got to pitch in the 2020 playoffs. But now, two years after the Yankees knocked him off the national stage in front of basically no one in-person, he has a shot at revenge.

This isn’t the same lineup he faced back then — that’s just the nature of baseball. DJ LeMahieu was the Yankees’ star that season. Luke Voit hit a team-high 22 home runs in 56 games, and Aaron Judge only slugged .554. Oh yeah, and Clint Frazier and Gio Urshela were there.

Comparing Bieber’s start then to what he’ll face now is foolhardy. Judge has morphed into an otherworldly home run-hitting monster, and as the Guardians saw in Game 1, he’s not alone. He also has Anthony Rizzo behind him, Josh Donaldson doing something like attempt baserunning, and Giancarlo Stanton with the ability to run into something more often than not.

Bieber is also not the same pitcher he was in 2020 when he won the Cy Young Award, either. He’s still good — a definite ace — but just different. If he’s going to beat the Yankees, it won’t be with blinding overpowering stuff. His strikeout rate was a paltry 25% this season, but his walk rate was a career-low 4.6%. If Bieber is going to succeed, he’s going to have to find a way to limit hard contact and not walk anyone — that’s basically it. He did it against the Rays, allowing just three hits and walking one in 7.2 innings, and there is every reason to think he can do it again.

One change we’ll have to see from Bieber is fewer sliders. He has occasionally turned into a slider-first pitcher at times as his velocity has declined, but that’s not going to cut it against the Yankees, especially Aaron Judge. As a team, New York ranks second in terms of pitch value against sliders at 22.5. Judge is a big part of that, leading all of baseball (24.2) by a ridiculous margin over second-place Nathaniel Lowe (14.9).

This is the kind of game where it comes in especially handy to have a great scout and staff handler like Austin Hedges. Maybe Bieber will want to put a few sliders in there because he’s feeling it. If he trusts and listens to his catcher, cooler heads might dictate a few more fastballs instead.

The Yankees will send Nestor Cortes to the mound for Game 2, a pitcher who has transformed himself into a phenomenal starter over the last two years. “Nasty Nestor,” as he is called, is on his third stint with the Yankees after being drafted by them in 2013. Considering he’s on the Yankees of all teams and pitching as well as he is, his story is one that doesn’t get a ton of attention.

He was plucked away from the Yankees in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, but was DFA’d after just four starts in Baltimore and returned to New York. He was then traded to the Mariners in November 2019, but released after five appearances in 2020. He made his third (and for now final) return in 2021, which is when he really started to show signs of life with a 2.90 ERA between 22 games and 14 starts. It all culminated in a 2022 campaign in which he has become a Cy Young-caliber pitcher thanks to a devastating cutter.

Cortes finished the regular season as one of the best pitchers at avoiding hard contact, which is trouble for the Guardians. His pitch mix consists of a 91.8 mph fastball, cutter, and slider, along with a rare changeup and sinker. He controls his cutter especially well, as a master of attacking in on the hands of right-handed batters. It’s a driving force behind his emergence this season.

Nestor Cortes’ cutter location heat map. A nightmare for right-handed batters facing a lefty.
Baseball Savant

The 4.7 inches of horizontal break on the cutter is double the league average. For context, Emmanuel Clase’s moves, on average, 3.2 inches. It doesn’t have the same triple-digit velocity, but with the right location, it’s an outstanding pitch.

The result is a lot of at-bats that finish like this:

We saw the regular-season Guardians make their name on hitting these kinds of difficult pitches routinely, but it’s been a challenge so far in the postseason. Needless to say, they are probably going to need more than a handful of hits and a single run to win against Cortes when they play tonight (weather permitting) at 7:37 p.m. ET.