How the Evolution of the Cutter Has Changed the Game of Baseball
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They say that the best pitch in baseball is and always will be a well-located fastball.
The best pitch in baseball is, in fact, a well-located cut fastball. The scary part for hitters is that more and more pitchers are starting to come around to just how dangerous the cutter really is.
Everyone knows that the keeper of the best cutter in Major League Baseball history is none other than New York Yankees longtime closer Mariano Rivera. His cutter is among the most devastating pitches ever thrown, and he forged a Hall of Fame career for himself by using it to shatter bats and get weak ground balls.
For a while there, Rivera was one of a select few pitchers who featured cutters in their repertoires. Over the last 10 years or so, that group has grown considerably. Pitchers who were already good to begin with have taken to throwing a cutter, and some pitchers have turned to the cutter to help save their careers.
The rise of the cutter was chronicled by Albert Chen in a story for Sports Illustrated that was published last June, and not a whole lot has changed over the past year. The cutter is still catching on, and major league hitters are still trying to solve the mystery of how to hit it.
So how did all of this happen? How has the cutter gone from being Mariano Rivera's not-so-secret weapon to being the secret weapon of numerous pitchers around the league?
As is the case with baseball tales, it's kind of a long story.
Mariano Rivera may be the keeper of baseball's most lethal cutter, but he didn't invent the pitch itself. The cutter was around long before he broke into the major leagues back in the mid-1990s.
Chen's story for SI claims that it is still unknown who invented the cut fastball. And indeed, the term itself has only been part of the baseball lexicon for 15 years or so. We can thank Rivera for that.
However, Chen's story mentions a passage in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers that referenced a description of a certain kind of fastball penned by former major leaguer Ethan Allen way back in the 1950s.
Here's Allen's description of the pitch from his 1953 instructional book:
[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.
The description is that of a traditional cutter grip, which you can see in this picture from TheCompletePitcher.com:
The terms "cutter" and "cut fastball" didn't show up until the 1990s, but it's probable that the cutter was pretty common in baseball in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. One expert thinks the pitch was probably just mistaken for a slider when it was thrown.
That's the theory proposed by former major leaguer Gil Patterson, who has since established himself as a major proponent of the cutter. Here's what he said to SI:
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.
There is a difference between a cutter and a slider, for the record. Sliders have more downward and horizontal break. Cutters are harder and they break very late in a single direction.
To the naked eye, though, they are similar pitches. Back when the term "cutter" didn't exist, it therefore would have been very easy to mistake pitches that were actually cutters for sliders.
Today, most savvy baseball fans know a cutter when they see one, and that's all thanks to one man.
Mariano Rivera and His Accidental Discovery
When Rivera first broke into the big leagues in 1995, he didn't throw a cutter. He simply threw very hard, and that was good enough.
The story, according to USA Today, goes that Rivera stumbled across the cut fastball by accident while he was playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza before a game in 1997.
He recounted his reaction to Bob Klapisch of The Record earlier this year:
All of a sudden the ball started moving, cutting, in a way I’d never seen before. I wasn’t doing anything different, yet it had a life of its own. So, tell me, how do you explain that? [Mendoza] kept asking me what I was doing to make the ball move like that, and I had no answer. To me, the pitch was a gift from God.
"A gift from God." In-freakin'-deed.
Rivera was already a good reliever before he discovered his cutter in 1997. He had posted a 2.09 ERA in 61 appearances in 1996, striking out 130 hitters in 107.2 innings and holding opponents to a .189 batting average. But once he added the cutter to his arsenal, he put himself on a path that eventually led him to Major League Baseball's all-time saves record.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, Rivera faced 4,121 hitters from the start of the 1997 season right up until his last appearance this season on April 30. He held opponents to a .208 batting average and a .285 slugging percentage.
His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) over this span checks in at .261. In the pre-cutter days, his BABIP was .285.
The effectiveness of Mo's cutter is best demonstrated by his career numbers against left-handed hitters, who for the last 15 years have been faced with the nearly-impossible task of making solid contact against Rivera's signature pitch. It's a pitch that breaks right in on their hands, making it very hard for lefties to square the ball up.
Lefties have hit .207 with a .266 slugging percentage against Rivera. Righties have been slightly more successful, hitting .214 with a .315 slugging percentage, but many managers have taken to pinch-hitting right-handed batters against Rivera over the years because of his dominance against lefties.
Rivera's dominance can be attributed to his cutter, and so can his longevity. He stopped throwing in the mid-90s years ago, yet he was able to continue dominating hitters because he doesn't need mid-90s velocity for his cutter to be a nasty pitch. Movement and location make it nasty, not velocity.
It's been oft-noted that every hitter who has ever faced Rivera knew what was coming. He would toy with hitters by showing them four-seam fastballs and two-seam fastballs, but he rarely (if ever) went through an at-bat without busting out the cutter at least once. Hitters knew they were going to get it when they faced him.
...Yet they still couldn't hit Rivera's cutter. There's a scientific reason for this.
The Physics of the Cutter
There's no such thing as an unhittable pitch, but the cutter is the closest thing to an unhittable pitch that we're going to see.
Leave it to the Sport Science guys to explain why:
The video's breakdown of the cutter's lateral movement doesn't really do anything more than explain the science behind something baseball fans should already know. What's truly interesting here is the revelation that the majority of Rivera's cutter's movement comes in the last 10 feet before it crosses home plate. Hitters are already in mid-swing by the time the ball starts to break, and they don't have enough time to adjust to the ball's movement before it's right on top of them.
This is precisely why we've seen so many hitters take so many weak swings against Rivera, and it's precisely why he's broken a thousand trees' worth of bats over the years. He puts his cutter in a place where it's almost impossible to hit, but also almost impossible for hitters to take. He's forged a Hall of Fame career for himself by daring hitters to hit his pitch.
This is common knowledge now, but there's really no understating just how unique this dynamic makes the cutter. Sliders, curveballs, changeups, splitters and the like are meant to get hitters to swing and miss. Even fastballs are thrown in an attempt to get hitters to swing at air.
That's not what the cutter is for. Like the sinker, it's a pitch specifically designed to end up making contact with a hitter's bat. A pitcher merely needs to throw it in the right place. And since the cutter is just a modified fastball, it's a pitch that's very easy to control.
Virtually any pitcher who can throw a fastball can throw a cutter, and that means virtually any pitcher has it in him to embarrass hitters as well as Rivera.
Why more pitchers didn't realize this sooner is a complete mystery.
Esteban Loiaza Masters the Cutter, Nearly Wins the Cy Young in 2003
Rivera had been using the cutter for over five years by the time the 2003 season rolled around, but it was still very much a niche pitch at that point. It was Rivera's pitch, and only he could throw it effectively.
That is, until Esteban Loaiza proved otherwise.
Loaiza had the two worst years of his career for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001 and 2002. He posted ERAs over 5.00 and opposing batters hit better than .300 against him both seasons. When he signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox before the 2003 season, few people cared to notice.
While Loaiza was in Toronto, however, he started developing a cutter under the watchful eye of Gil Patterson, who was the Blue Jays' pitching coach at the time.
White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper helped Loaiza perfect his cutter, and he proceeded to put it to good use in the 2003 season.
Loiaza went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA in 2003. Hitters went from hitting over .300 against him to batting .233, and he held lefties to a .260 average. The year before, lefties had hit .308 against him.
One lefty who was impressed was Tony Gwynn, who wrote an article about Loiaza for ESPN.com that year. He praised the way in which Loaiza was forcing hitters to hit his pitch, and he even went so far as to compare Loiaza's renaissance to Greg Maddux's in the early 1990s.
Loaiza started the All-Star Game for the American League that year, and he ended up finishing second in the AL Cy Young voting. Not bad for a guy who came into the year with a career record of 69-73 and a career ERA of 4.88.
It was all thanks to the cutter.
Roy Halladay and Other Greats Follow Loaiza's Example
Loaiza's career renaissance didn't last. He never won more than 12 games in a season after 2003, and he's been out of Major League Baseball ever since 2008.
However, the slow death of his career did not scare other starting pitchers away from turning to the cutter. Over the last eight years or so, the cutter has been steadily gaining popularity among Cy Young contenders and washed-up journeymen alike.
The one starting pitcher who has made better use of the cutter than anybody in recent years is Roy Halladay. Not surprisingly, he also took up throwing the pitch when he was under Patterson's gaze early in his career in Toronto.
After tweaking his mechanics and mastering the cutter in 2001, Halladay won 19 games with a 2.93 ERA in 2002, and won the Cy Young with 22 wins and a 3.25 ERA in 2003. Loaiza, of course, finished second.
According to FanGraphs, Halladay threw his cutter more than ever in 2011. Nearly 45 percent of his pitches were cutters, and he ended up finishing with a career-high 8.47 K/9 and a 2.35 ERA. He finished second in the Cy Young voting to Clayton Kershaw.
He wasn't the only one making good use of the cutter in 2011. Per FanGraphs, Dan Haren threw his cutter nearly 48 percent of the time and Brandon McCarthy threw his own cutter 36.4 percent of the time.
You probably won't be surprised to hear that neither of them stumbled on the cutter by accident. On the contrary, both of them turned to the cutter for the sake of saving their respective careers.
"A couple years ago I didn't even throw it, and now I have no idea where I'd be without it," Haren told SI last year. "Every pitcher who throws it falls in love with it."
FanGraphs stats indicate that Haren started using his cutter regularly in 2009 when he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks. By then, his average fastball velocity was in decline, and he told SI that he was well aware of that.
Here's what Haren told Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia after he was traded to the Angels in 2010:
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.
Hence the cutter, and it worked wonders for Haren in 2011. He threw more cutters than any pitcher in baseball and he wound up winning 16 games with a 3.17 ERA.
McCarthy's cutter story is similar, but also completely different in many respects. According to ESPN.com, McCarthy was convinced to transform himself into a completely different pitcher after taking a look at his sabermetric stats, all of which told him directly to his face that he was a below-average major league pitcher.
McCarthy decided to model himself after none other than Roy Halladay, and that meant working a cutter into his repertoire.
His hard work paid off in 2011. McCarthy used his cutter to post a career-best 3.32 ERA, and FanGraphs PITCHf/x stats show that McCarthy's cutter ranked among the most effective cutters in Major League Baseball last year.
In the end, the three men who threw more cutters than anybody last season—Haren, Halladay, and McCarthy —ended up finishing in the top 10 among major league pitchers in FIP, a stat that measures what a given pitcher's ERA should look like.
In other words, the three pitchers who threw more cutters than anybody in 2011 were three of the best pitchers in baseball.
The Rise of the Cutter...and the Potential Fall of the Cutter
Per FanGraphs, 14 different starting pitchers and 16 different relievers threw cutters more than 20 percent of the time in 2011.
In 2012, not much has changed. Once again, 14 different starting pitchers (minimum 70 innings pitched) are throwing the cutter more than 20 percent of the time, and 14 different relievers are throwing it more than 20 percent of the time. And that's not including Rivera, who is out for the season.
Among the starting pitchers who have started throwing the cutter more and more is Boston Red Sox righty Josh Beckett, who is throwing his cutter nearly 22 percent of the time this season, according to FanGraphs. He's been throwing it steadily since 2010. Like Haren, his increased use of his cutter has coincided with a loss of fastball velocity.
It's a trend that's gaining traction, and it's a trend that should continue to gain traction in the next couple of seasons. Pitchers who can no longer miss bats with their fastball may as well give up and start throwing a fastball designed to hit bats in places other than the sweet spot.
The cutter is not for everyone, of course. Jered Weaver has tried to develop a cutter after watching Haren have so much success with his, but he hasn't been able to make it work. Haren himself told SI that he warned Weaver not to take his experimentation too far:
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.
The lesson is simple. If you can throw it, throw it. If you can't, don't force it.
Judging from the increased number of cutter throwers around the major leagues, however, it's not exactly an impossible pitch to master.
This isn't good news for hitters, but it's not the end of the world either. Here's what St. Louis Cardinals veteran first baseman Lance Berkman told Sports Illustrated:
Now everybody throws a cutter, and the more they throw them, the better you can make adjustments. 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.
Hitters didn't have to worry about adjusting to the cutter when Rivera was the only one throwing it. Now that everyone is throwing a cutter, hitters have no choice but to make the proper adjustments.
Therein lies the potential downfall of the cutter. The more they see it, the more used to the cutter hitters are going to get. Over time, the cutter will become less and less of an unhittable pitch as it becomes more and more common.
All the more reason for pitchers to start throwing a cutter now while the getting is good.
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