Is the cut fastball a magic pitch? It stymies hitters, revives pitchers' careers (hello, Dan Haren) and has helped shift the game's balance from plate to mound. The cutter: It's not just for Mariano anymore
This is an article from the June 13, 2011 issue
There is a mysterious and magical pitch that is changing baseball. The pitch is saving careers, perhaps even extending them, turning journeymen into shutdown relievers and restoring the dominance of aging All-Stars. It's the secret reason why the game's power balance has shifted from the hitter to the pitcher. The pitch screams toward the hitter with the speed and the spin of a fastball and on a plane as flat as a vinyl LP and then, just as it begins to cross the plate, the ball darts like a badminton birdie. "Your brain is telling you fastball," says Angels rightfielder Torii Hunter. "Then the ball breaks, and you're done."
The pitch is the cut fastball—the cutter—and it has ignited a quiet revolution, from Philadelphia, where the Phillies' brotherhood of aces has adopted it as its signature weapon; to Texas, where an overachieving Rangers pitching staff rode the pitch all the way to last year's World Series; to Anaheim, where a veteran with a waning fastball has taken the pitch and turned himself into a Cy Young candidate virtually overnight. "A couple years ago I didn't even throw it, and now I have no idea where I'd be without it," says Angels righthander Dan Haren. "Every pitcher who throws it falls in love with it."
The pitch is not only why the Yankees' Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer ever, but also why the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, Roy Halladay, is having one of his most dominant seasons, at age 34. The pitch is why virtual unknowns such as Cleveland's Josh Tomlin, St. Louis's Jaime Garcia and Tampa Bay's James Shields are blooming into All-Stars—and All-Stars such as Haren, Philadelphia's Cole Hamels and Boston's Josh Beckett are as good as, or better than, ever.
"When I broke in [in 1999], I could count on one hand the number of guys who threw it," says Cardinals rightfielder Lance Berkman. "Everyone knows about Mariano. Al Leiter threw a cutter. Darren Oliver had a little cutter, too. Now it's like I can count on one hand the guys who don't have it."
"In the '70s it was the slider," says Indians team president Mark Shapiro. "In the '80s [pitching coach and manager] Roger Craig came up with a split-finger fastball, and then Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling took off with it. Now it's the cutter."
A pitch that didn't exist in the mainstream baseball lexicon two decades ago has become the It Pitch, the most devastating weapon in the game. And now pitchers and hitters are racing to unlock the mystery of the cutter.
The cutter guru, the man who helped Halladay master his most devastating pitch, is firing baseballs at a sign on the outfield wall at San Jose Municipal Stadium, home of the Class A San Jose Giants, a few hours before the start of a game. Before he blew out his arm in 1977, 10 games into his major league career, Gil Patterson was a can't-miss Yankees prospect. (Carl Yastrzemski called the righthander the best young pitcher he'd ever seen.) Thirty-four years later Patterson, now the A's minor league pitching coordinator—silver-haired and trim at 55—can still bring it. When he throws a hard four-seam fastball into the wall—thwack!—heads turn in the stands. "You can teach people a cutter much easier than you can a curveball and a slider and a major league diabolical sinker," Patterson says in between throws. He holds the baseball with a classic four-seam fastball grip, then moves his grip slightly off center, squeezes his middle finger on the ball until it turns pink, and winds up and fires another pitch that scuds left just before it hits the wall.
This is the cutter, though to the untrained eye it may look like a slider—the difference is often subtle, though they are two clearly distinct pitches. A slider breaks horizontally but also has downward movement. A cutter moves mostly laterally. "The difference is that the cutter is thrown harder, it doesn't have as much depth and the break is much shorter," Patterson says. "If someone's throwing [his fastball] at 90, their slider should be at 82. Their cutter should be at 86, about a four-mile-per-hour difference."
Patterson throws another pitch—thwack!—and says, "I'd love to see what Goose Gossage's velocity was on his slider. You look back at guys like Lee Smith, Bret Saberhagen, Steve Busby, Dave Stieb, and they threw their sliders pretty hard. Maybe today those are cutters."
No one knows who threw the first cutter. But though the term cut fastball only became part of the baseball vernacular within the last 15 years, a handful of players have been throwing the pitch for generations. (As referred to in the 2004 book The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, longtime major league outfielder and Yale coach Ethan Allen, in a 1953 instructional book, wrote, "[A pitcher] threw a fastball that was unique because it slid or broke like a curve. It was somewhat like a fastball, but he threw over the side of the index finger to a greater extent. This off-center pressure caused the break.") Rivera, who stumbled upon the pitch while warming up before a game in 1997, made the cutter famous, though it didn't lead immediately to a wave of imitators. "Mariano's a Hall of Famer mainly due to that one pitch, and I think people have viewed his mastery as a spectacular skill that he alone has," says Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine. "It wasn't until later, when middle-of-the-rotation starters and normal relievers had effectiveness throwing it, that you saw the wide-scale adoption of it."
Patterson was the Blue Jays' pitching coach when Halladay—after overhauling his delivery in the minors under the tutelage of minor league pitching coach Mel Queen—had his breakout 2002 season with Toronto and won the AL Cy Young a year later. The pitcher who finished second in the voting that year was White Sox righthander Esteban Loaiza, then a 31-year-old journeyman who a year earlier, as a struggling Blue Jay, learned the cutter from Patterson. Loaiza perfected it under White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, another well-known proponent of the cutter. "[Loaiza] threw the slider, and it was too big and loopy," says Patterson. "We worked on shortening the slider, and he picked the cutter up in two side sessions." Halladay learned his cutter the same way. "When Doc lowered his arm angle, he created the movement on his pitches," says Patterson. "We shortened his slider because it was too big—that's how his cutter came about."
Patterson is now watching his former student attain a higher plane in his 14th season, as he relies more on his cutter: Five seasons ago Halladay was throwing it 19.3% of the time, and so far this season—as he has the highest strikeout rate of his career (8.9) and leads the majors in innings (98 1/3), complete games (4), walk rate (1.9), and wins (8)—Halladay is firing more cutters (45.2% of his pitches, a major league high among starters) and fewer fastballs (25.4%) than ever. His rotation mates are following his lead: Almost one out of every four pitches thrown by a Phillies starter this season has been a cutter.
Cutter love is sweeping across baseball. In 2005 five major league starters threw the cutter more than 15% of the time; last year 14 did; this season, that number had ballooned to 24 at week's end. "The majority of our pitchers are throwing cutters, or working on them," says Levine of the Rangers' staff, which has undergone a stunning turnaround in recent seasons. "Five years ago, you read advance reports and five percent of guys had cutters in their repertoire. Now, it's 70 percent to 80 percent. The pitch is in almost every scouting report now."
The Cy Young candidate, the pitcher who turned to the cutter out of desperation, is sitting at his locker at Angel Stadium, thinking back to the moment he felt his career slipping away. "Some guys can be stubborn and think their stuff is still good enough and not make changes, but before you know it, they're out of the game," says Haren, who struggled with the Diamondbacks early last season and was dealt to the Angels in July.
"I remember going in to talk to [manager] Mike Scioscia when I got here about what kind of pitcher I was," says the 30-year-old, a three-time All-Star with the A's and D-Backs who was 5--3 with the AL's fourth-best ERA (2.29) and second-best WHIP (0.94) through Sunday. "I said I was going to have to be a guy that relied on movement and keeping hitters off balance. In my Oakland days I was a fastball-split guy, but I don't throw hard anymore. I don't blow anyone away anymore. And no one wants to throw 89, 90 and try to spot that down and away. That's dangerous."
Like Boston's Josh Beckett this season, Haren is a veteran who, in his 30s, has transformed himself into a more effective pitcher. Haren had fooled around with a cutter as a young pitcher—"I remember guys laughing at it because it was terrible," he says—but with the Angels he committed to the pitch, gripping the ball "like a slider, with pressure on the middle finger," and over time he counted on it more in games. "The key was just really believing in it," says the righthander, who, after throwing the pitch a little more than a quarter of the time last year, has seen his cutter usage skyrocket to 41.9% this season. "Now I try to throw it right down the middle and trust that it's going to move to the outer part. The times I pull it out for a ball are times that I'm not trusting it."
A righthanded batter facing Haren's cutter watches it tail away from him. A lefthander sees the ball come inside—he swings thinking the ball will hit the barrel of the bat, while the pitch veers toward the handle. "Guys like Haren that used to throw 94 but are now throwing 90, 91, they throw a cutter because it makes the 91-mph fastball seem like 94," says A's shortstop Cliff Pennington. "Haren's is just so hard to pick up and distinguish from his slider—it's got less break but the velo is harder, so you see fastball and you swing and it breaks enough to miss. If you see the spin on it and you think breaking ball, then you're late."
Everyone on the Angels' staff wants Haren's cutter, from 32-year-old journeyman Joel Piniero ("It just doesn't work for me," he says. "I don't know if it's my arm angle, release point, or because I don't have big hands—I'm going to keep searching for it") to 28-year-old ace Jered Weaver, who, despite already having four above-average pitches in his arsenal, has spent the last few months trying to conquer it. "It would just be another weapon, something else for guys to think about," says Weaver. "I've been trying it since spring training, playing around with it with [Haren]. But I'm going to keep trying."
Haren's advice to Weaver: Stay away from it. "Weaver wants one bad," he says. "We'll be playing catch and he'll try to throw one, and it'll be terrible. I tell Jered this: It's not for everyone. It can mess up your other pitches—you can lose your feel for the pitch. You can lose your grip on your curveball. You can start to lose velocity on your fastball. Jered's stuff is already good enough. He doesn't need it. When he's old like me, he'll need it."
Rivera's cutter is one of the most unhittable pitches in the history of the game. "You can't see the spin on it," says Berkman, a switch-hitter who bats lefthanded against the righty Rivera. "A four-seam fastball rotates a certain way. And anything that's going to come in on you, like a slider or a cutter, is going to spin a certain way—you see a red dot on the ball as it's coming at you from the seams as it spins. And once you see the rotation on it, you react a certain way. The good cutters, like Rivera's, rotate like a four-seamer—you don't see the red dot, you don't know it's going to come in on you until it's too late."
Facing Rivera's cutter, Pennington says, "I've seen the red dot once," as if he'd seen Bigfoot.
Several closers—from the A's Andrew Bailey (another of Patterson's disciples) to the Giants' Brian Wilson to the Rays' Kyle Farnsworth—are deploying the cutter as a primary pitch, but the man most likely to continue Rivera's cutter legacy is, of all people, a 32-year-old setup man who has never been a closer: the Padres' Mike Adams. "Anyone comparing my cutter to [Rivera's] is doing his an injustice," Adams says, but opposing hitters, who have hit .164 against him over the last three seasons (the lowest batting average against of any reliever in baseball), would disagree. According to an advanced metric that ranks the value and effectiveness of every pitch, Adams's cutter (which similar to Rivera's spins toward the hitter like a four-seamer) over this season has been the single most devastating cutter thrown by any reliever—even more effective than Rivera's.
Adams grips his cutter with the tips of his index and middle fingers hugging the seam of the ball. ("There's some days that I'm just squeezing the heck out of the ball, and sometimes the harder I squeeze, the more cut I get," he says. "I have my fingers there so I can really pull that seam down and get the movement.") Adams—who began throwing the cutter in 2008 and who in a month could be one of the most sought-after players at the trade deadline if the last-place Padres make him available—now has so much faith in the pitch that he doesn't bother with scouting reports. "I know what my strengths are. If you think you can hit my cutter, then good luck," he says. "You might have a scouting report that says, this guy can hit a fastball, a slider or a cutter, but whose cutter was it? It may have been someone with a bad cutter."
Not all cutters are created equal, of course. Not long ago a pitcher with an unspectacular cutter could fool hitters simply because of the surprise factor. "Now everybody throws a cutter, and the more they throw them, the better you can make adjustments," says Berkman. "Your brain learns how to lay off the tough ones that are in on you. Some are still good and unhittable, but some are not so good."
The legion of pitchers throwing the cutter will grow. But baseball is cyclical, and from both hitters and pitchers there will be adjustments and counter-adjustments. Someday the balance of power will shift back to the hitters. And someday another pitch will define another generation of pitchers. "You always want to stay ahead of the curve," says Haren, "but I don't know how many pitches are left. I hope I don't have to reinvent myself again."
The pitchers who have mastered the cutter will ride it as long as they can. "Earlier in my career I always said I wanted to throw a split," says Adams. "Now I know I was never a split guy. I'm a cutter guy. I've found who I am."
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THE HEAT INDEX
What makes a good cutter so effective is its late movement—it looks like a fastball, then darts for the outer reaches of the strike zone or off the plate. That effectiveness can be tracked with a heat map, a color-coded graphic that shows how productive batters are when a pitch hits a certain spot. Areas in dark red are hitter-friendly, with pitches there belted at a .500 clip; dark blue represents a batting average of .100; green areas are around .300. The following pages show cutter heat maps for seven pitchers who rely heavily on the pitch. (Pitch frequency data from Fangraphs.com.)
Heat graphs and data analysis provided by TruMedia Networks. Visit BaseballAnalytics.org for more.
AVERAGE MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER
When batters put the typical big league hurler's cutter in play they hit .254, or 40 points below the overall average on balls put in play.
No one throws the cutter more (89% of his pitches this season); since the '08 season the batting average against his cutter is .186.
His cutter usage has jumped to 41.9% this season, from 27.2% last year, and opposing batters are hitting .192 against it.
No starter has thrown the cutter more often this season (45.2% of his pitches); he holds batters to a .246 average when he throws it.
After a subpar 2010 season, he's throwing the cutter more than ever (17.1%) and has the best overall batting average against (.188) of his career.
In his 23 career starts he's thrown the cutter 26.1% of the time; opponents' batting average against that pitch this season is .213.
THE RISING STARS
A pitch that looks like a fastball but is actually a lethal cutter has helped him become one of the game's best setup men. (Fastball heat map shown.)
He has always featured the cutter heavily, but this year it's more effective: A .174 batting average against compared with a .307 last season.