Patience or Panic: Nestor Cortes, Alejandro Kirk, Jordan Montgomery

What should we do with these struggling stars in Week 7?

This is a difficult time in the fantasy baseball season.

We’re deep enough into the season that we have enough evidence to really dig into the numbers in a more meaningful way. But it’s also still early enough that things can still change rapidly. It puts fantasy managers on a razor’s edge when it comes to making managerial decisions with their team. A struggling player can burn you if hope to ride out a bad start that turns into a bad season. But it could be equally as dangerous to drop or trade a guy who’s about to turn the corner.

So, what should we do with these struggling stars?


Nestor Cortes, SP, New York Yankees


Nestor Cortes broke out last year with a 12-4 record, 2.44 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in 158 1/3 innings. It was his consistency even more than his overall numbers that really boosted his value. Cortes never had a start where he allowed more than four earned runs. In fact, he allowed three earned runs or fewer in 25 of his 28 starts.

For Cortes, the breakout actually started the previous season. In 2021, he put together 93 innings with a 2.90 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 103 strikeouts. He was given a chance to start for New York in the second half and showed the same kind of consistency. He only had one start out of 14 where he allowed more than three earned runs.

That two-year streak came to a crushing end this season.

Cortes is struggling with a 5.53 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. He gave up seven earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings in a start against the Texas Rangers at the end of April and then allowed six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings his last time out on the mound at home against the Tampa Bay Rays. Between those disasters, there have been a few bright spots, but Cortes has not had a truly dominant performance yet this season.

Cortes relies heavily on three main pitches: four-seam fastball, cutter, and sweeper. The sweeper has become a massively popular pitch across professional baseball over the past couple years and Cortes has featured it heavily in his arsenal since 2021. Some pitchers, like Shohei Ohtani, use the sweeper as one of their main pitches and generate a lot of outs with its darting movement. For Cortes, it’s more of a set-up pitch to his four-seamer and cutter.

The pitch’s rising popularity is becoming an issue for a pitcher like Cortes. As more and more pitchers adopt the sweeper, batters have become more accustomed to hitting it. The problem for Cortes is that his sweeper is almost identical to the one he was throwing back in 2021 with similar velocity and almost similar movement. Cortes has never thrown a commanding sweeper to begin with – both his vertical and horizontal movement on the pitch are just average – but it also has not improved much over the years.

Hitters have caught up to what Cortes is dealing. His sweeper had a .233 batting average against in 2021 and that went up to .268 last season and is at .333 so far in 2023. Cortes has clearly noticed this problem too and has started to back off its usage. He’s thrown the pitch just 12% of the time this year after throwing it 19% of the time the past two years. In its place, Cortes has started to pump more four-seamers and cutters. In essence, he is becoming a two-pitch pitcher.

Verdict: Uneasy. I’m not going to say panic just yet, but I’m moving in that direction. Something has to give. Batters are only going to get better at hitting the sweeper and it simply cannot be an option for Cortes to remove it from his repertoire entirely. It can still be a dominant pitch. Take Chris Bassitt for example. Like Cortes, Bassitt throws his sweeper only a small percentage of the time, but it has over two more inches of horizontal break (18.5 in.) and almost eight more inches of vertical break (53.5 in.). Batters are hitting .091 against Bassitt’s sweeper with a 42.5 whiff rate.

Or take Ohtani for another example, his sweeper has 17.3 inches of horizontal movement and just 36.9 inches of vertical, but he throws it with gas in the mid-80s and hitters struggle with its unique combination of movement and velocity.

The point is, there are a few different ways that Cortes can improve his sweeper to keep it as a viable weapon and it’s a weapon that he needs. Cortes has been inconsistent with his four-seamer and cutter this season. His fastball velocity is all over the place and his whiffs are down. Maybe that’s the result of an ineffective sweeper, but if he doesn’t have a feel for his fastballs too, that’s just more cause for concern.


Alejandro Kirk, C, Toronto Blue Jays


Alejandro Kirk made a case as the best catcher in fantasy baseball last year. His skills with the bat were nearly unrivalled as he posted a .285/.372/.415 slash line with 14 home runs and a 129 wRC+ that ranked highest among all qualified catchers. There was no reason then or now to think that Kirk’s season was a fluke.

Coming up through the minors, the consensus was that Kirk would be a player with a strong batting average who puts the ball in play a lot. That was certainly true in 2022 as Kirk posted a 10.7% strikeout rate that was in the second percentile for all players in the league.

Kirk’s biggest problem last year was an inability to lift the ball. His 8.1 degree launch angle was well below average and his 50% groundball rate left a lot to be desired. That didn’t matter as much last year because Kirk put so many balls into play and did it with a fair bit of power behind his swing. Even with a low launch angle and high groundball rate, Kirk had a .299 BABIP, which implies he got on base exactly as often as he probably deserved.

This season, Kirk is hitting .217/.354/.304 with just two home runs and a lot of frustrated fantasy managers.

Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see where things have gone downhill. Kirk’s launch angle has cratered to 1.5 degrees (the league average is 12.1) which has only amplified his groundball issues. He has a 59% groundball rate and he’s doing it with poor quality of contact. Kirk’s 85.6 average exit velocity is in the bottom 6% of the league. That’s a lot of weak groundballs. So, it’s no surprise then that his BABIP is down to .237.

Verdict: Patience. Kirk’s low BABIP is not exactly bad luck, but it’s almost impossible for any player to maintain a BABIP that low. Kirk is not hitting with much power right now, but he is still making frequent contact. His 13.3% strikeout rate is still among the league’s best and he has improved his walk rate to 15.9% – also among the best in the league. It’s almost unheard of for a player to carry a 1.5 angle throughout the entire season, especially a player with as good of an eye at the plate as Kirk. His career average is 8.7 degrees, so, I would expect that number to start rising soon. Same goes for his power. Kirk’s career average exit velocity is 90.4, which is a few ticks above the league average. Last year, Kirk had an 87.1 average EV through the first month of the season but then turned it up down the stretch, so he’s not in uncharted territory. It may look bleak, but Kirk is too talented of a hitter to be plagued by these problems for long.


Jordan Montgomery, SP, St. Louis Cardinals


Jordan Montgomery did not get an over-abundance of love during draft season with an ADP hovering around 175. It was a strong year for starting pitchers though – or at least it was supposed to be – and Montgomery would have likely gone higher otherwise. Last season, after being traded from the New York Yankees over to the St. Louis Cardinals, Montgomery flourished. In 63 2/3 innings with the Cards, Montgomery had a 6-3 record, 3.11 ERA, and 1.08 WHIP with 61 strikeouts. As a mid-round sleeper pick, Montgomery seemed like a true gem.

Montgomery has not exactly continued upon that upward path this season. Through his first nine starts, Montgomery is 2-6 with a 4.21 ERA and 1.34 WHIP.

It’s been a mixed bag. Montgomery absolutely dominated in starts against Milwaukee and San Francisco only to be obliterated against Arizona and the Chicago Cubs. While he hasn’t always pitched well, he certainly deserves better than a 2-6 record considering three of those losses have come in quality starts. It’s the losses that stand out, which is not something I often focus on when evaluating a pitcher’s performance. So much of that is outside of a pitcher’s control, but excess losses – especially in quality starts – point to a bigger issue: team defense.

That part seems to ring true for Montgomery. While he’s been far from perfect, the defense behind him has done little to help. Overall, the Cardinals have rated well defensively this season (as they usually do), but not so much when Montgomery is on the mound. With a 3.83 FIP, it’s clear that Montgomery has deserved a little better than he’s getting from the field. That also stands out in his BABIP, which is up to an unlucky .321 this season. Last year, his BABIP was .275 which probably was a bit on the lucky side. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

I can’t exactly knock Montgomery for the quality of his pitches too much. He relies heavily on his sinker. He threw it 35% of the time last year and even more this season up to 42.2%. That’s a big difference, but it’s exactly what he should be doing.

Montgomery has one of the game’s premier sinkers. The -9 run value that he has on that pitch is the best among all starters (tied with Chris Bassitt). His changeup and curveball are both down overall from last year, but he showed excellent improvement his last time out. Last night against Milwaukee, he generated a 41 CSW% on the curve and 38% on the changeup.

Verdict: Patience. A better verdict might even be: buy low. The quality of stuff is there, but the luck and the team defense are not. While we’re unlikely to see Montgomery finish with an ERA in the low 3.00s, he certainly can be far more valuable than what we’re currently getting from him. And considering how little love Montgomery was getting coming into the season, it probably would not cost much to acquire him now.


Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Ryan Loren

Ryan Loren is a baseball writer for Pitcher List and a Detroit sports fan struggling to remember what it's like to root for winning teams.

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