It has laid waste to a thousand bats. It has won championships. It has racked up a major league record 643 saves. And, someday soon, it will put its keeper in the Hall of Fame.
"It" is Mariano Rivera's cut fastball, one of the greatest pitches the game has ever known.
Yeah, yeah, it's been said. Like, a million times before. Praising the New York Yankees great's cutter as one of the greatest pitches in history is like praising Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as one of the greatest albums in history or The Godfather as one of the greatest films in history. No duh.
It's a good thing, then, that I'm not really here to throw a bunch of words at anyone. What follows is certainly a geek-out session over Rivera's cutter that will naturally feature some words, but it's going to be carried out largely with pictures instead. Pictures can spin a heck of a yarn in their own right, and the idea here is to use them to spin a yarn about the rise and subsequent dominance of Rivera's cutter.
The popular narrative is that Mo's cutter arrived on the scene in 1997. The story, told by Scott Miller of CBSSports.com recently, and by many others over the years, goes that Rivera was playing catch with fellow reliever Ramiro Mendoza and the ball suddenly started moving in a funky way. Next thing anyone knew, dominance was happening.
However, it might not be that simple. A couple years ago, current Yankees manager and former catcher Joe Girardi told James Traub of The New York Times that Rivera had a cutter before that fateful game of catch with Mendoza.
Sort of, anyway. In Traub's words, Rivera had an "embryonic form" of a cutter when Girardi first arrived in New York. That was in 1996, one year before Rivera's fateful game of catch with Mendoza.
The '96 season was also only Rivera's second season in the big leagues. That got me to thinking: Maybe he was flashing something that looked like a cutter when he broke into the big leagues in 1995?
Oh, he just might have.
Take a few minutes out of your day to watch the following highlight of Rivera punching out 11 Chicago White Sox hitters on the Fourth of July, 1995. You should watch it because A) there's something in it that we're going to be focusing on more thoroughly in a moment, and B) because it’s just not every day you’re treated to a sizzle reel featuring Rivera ringing up 11 punchouts in a single day’s work.
For me, this clip brings to mind Bill Paxton's character in Aliens because THERE'S MOVEMENT ALL OVER THE PLACE! The one pitch that stands out as being particularly intriguing is the one that Rivera threw to Warren Newson at the 0:55 mark. There was something oddly cutter-ish about it.
Here’s a screengrab of the pitch—that green thing is the ball—in question shortly before it's about to cross home plate:
Right there, it was looking like it was going to be a high and tight fastball. But when Newson swung at it, it was on a slightly different trajectory:
Something happened, and we can get a better idea of this particular "something" if we put the above two images in sequence in a low-budget GIF:
That's a pitch that appeared to be on a beeline for the catcher's glove and then, BAM!, it broke down and in toward the handle of Newson's bat.
I don't know what kind of pitch that really was. Maybe Rivera remembers. Given his reputation as a human computer, he probably does. But I do know this: Right-handed pitchers only throw two pitches that have that sort of action. One is a slider. The other, of course, is a cutter.
Now, Rivera did throw a slider back in those days. A scouting report on him from way back in 1995 plucked from Diamond Mines described it as "a hard one" that had quick break. But the pitch we just looked at moved a lot faster and broke a lot quicker than an ordinary slider, and that calls to mind something that cutter guru Gil Patterson told Sports Illustrated a couple years ago:
"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."
Perhaps that's true of the slider Rivera was throwing way back in the day. It may have been a slider in name, but maybe it was actually the "embryonic" cutter that Girardi found himself catching in 1996.
It's either that, or the pitch we just looked at was a simple fastball. Maybe some of Rivera's heaters moved like that inadvertently, and maybe those are the ones that Girardi saw as precursors to his cutter.
Whatever the case, '97 was indeed the year that Rivera's embryonic cutter ceased to be an apparently random occurrence and became more of an exact science. He recounted the incident for Miller:
[Rivera] and his old catch partner, Ramiro Mendoza, were throwing together one afternoon, Rivera says, "and I was blowing [saves] ... I wasn't doing good. I was trying so hard. Nothing was moving." [...]
Anyway, as Rivera threw with Mendoza on that now-hallowed day in Yankees history, the ball suddenly started to move.
"[Mendoza] was upset at me because the ball was moving and he thought I was making the ball move," Rivera says. "From that moment, I told Mel [Stottlemyre, then-Yankees pitching coach], I have no control over this. The ball is moving, and I have no control."
Rivera and Stottlemyre worked on it at old Tiger Stadium when the Yankees landed in Detroit in late June.
"Didn't matter how I grabbed the ball," Rivera recalls. "It was still moving. I told Mel that I won't be throwing no more balls in the bullpen because I need to be ready for the game. We worked a lot and this thing is still the same and let's leave it like that."
Miller then says that Rivera went on to save all three games the Yankees played at Tiger Stadium. Using my powers of deduction—such as the power to click on "Game Logs" over at Baseball-Reference.com—that would put the birth of Rivera's cutter in the neighborhood of June 23-25 of 1997.
Sadly, there's no video of that wondrous time available over at MLB.com. But Rivera found himself closing out the '97 All-Star Game a couple weeks later, and one of the pitches he threw to get the job done warrants a closer look.
Pay close attention to this pitch to Mark Grace in this clip:
Looks familiar, right? The camera angle doesn't make it easy to get a good look at the movement of the pitch, but the usual trappings of a classic Mo Rivera cutter are there. They become even more apparent if we break it down frame by frame and imagine some inner dialogue for Grace and Ivan Rodriguez, who was doing the catching.
Here's Figure 1, featuring the ball on its way to the plate:
In which Grace is thinking: "Inside fastball. It's cool, I've got this."
And Pudge, likewise, is thinking: "Inside fastball. It's cool, I've got this."
Now we go to Figure 2, featuring Grace starting his swing and Pudge's glove moving noticeably to his right:
In which Grace is thinking: "Still an inside fastball. I've still got this."
And Pudge is thinking: "Alright, moving a little bit. But I've still got this."
Now we go to Figure 3, featuring Grace (probably) realizing that he's made a mistake while Pudge's glove continues to drift right:
In which Grace is thinking: "OK, really inside fastball. Activate T-Rex arms!"
And Pudge is thinking: "Incoming!"
Now to Figure 4, featuring the point of contact:
In which Grace, upon hearing the sickly thud the ball made on contact, is thinking: "Dang it."
And Pudge is thinking: "Here it co...hey, there it goes. Phew."
Now for the low-budget GIF to tie it all together:
Again, the camera angle isn't ideal, but these images show an unfamiliar catcher reacting to an unfamiliar pitch and a left-handed batter being totally overpowered by what was indeed an unfamiliar pitch at the time. This was Rivera's new weapon in action.
It's a shame that we can't see what Grace was seeing in that instance, but there's some dandy modern technology that can give us an idea. Pitch movement is tracked over at TexasLeaguers.com, and this is what a typical Rivera cutter to lefty hitters looks like from a bird's eye view:
For the sake of comparison, here's Rivera's four-seam fastball:
Quite the difference. One pitch moves ever so slightly toward left-handed batters. The other moves not so slightly at all toward left-handed batters. For them, Rivera's cutter is essentially a homing missile.
[Quick note: FanGraphs GIF-master Drew Sheppard put together an awesome GIF that demonstrates the difference between Rivera's four-seamer and cutter for lefty hitters. I can't re-post it here, but it's definitely worth checking out.]
With his new weapon locked and loaded, Rivera went on to be quite the dominant pitcher down the stretch in '97. Before the Detroit series that was supposedly the birth of Rivera's cutter, opponents were hitting .263 against him. From the Detroit series on, opponents hit just .212. And at the end of the year, he had given up a grand total of five extra-base hits to lefty batters.
That's obviously the story of Mo's career. Lefties own a .209 average and a .268 slugging percentage against him, compared to .215 and .321 for right-handed batters. Among right-handed pitchers with at least 1,000 at-bats logged against lefty hitters, Rivera's .526 OPS against lefties is the lowest ever.
However, there is something to be said about what Rivera can do to right-handed hitters. They may have slightly better luck, but Rivera does own a higher strikeout rate against righties. He's struck out 25.8 percent of the righty batters he's faced, compared to 20.5 percent for lefties.
It helps that Rivera has long had a lethal weapon to use against righty hitters that nobody else had for many years: the front-door cutter. You can catch a glimpse of one here in this video from 2008, in which Jhonny Peralta's day is spectacularly ruined:
And now for a quick side-by-side look at where that pitch appeared headed and where it ended up, in which Peralta is a statue on one side and a defeated man on the other:
In the image on the left, Peralta is thinking, "This one might be inside. Activate take mode!"
In the image on the right, he's thinking the same thing Grace was thinking back in '97: "Dang it."
Now, if velocity was a vital ingredient to the effectiveness of Rivera's cutter, that 2008 season would have marked the end of the pitch's golden age. According to Baseball Info Solutions data at FanGraphs and data at Brooks Baseball, the '08 season was the last in which Rivera's cutter crossed the plate at an average of roughly 93 miles per hour. From 2009 until now, Rivera's cutter has sat more in the 91-92 range.
What we've found out more and more in this span is that velocity really isn't much of a vital ingredient when it comes to Rivera's cutter. Lateral movement has always been the key, and that's something that hasn't diminished.
According to Brooks Baseball, Rivera got an average of 2.51 inches of horizontal movement on his cutter in 2007, the first year of the PITCHf/x era. Here's how his cutter has moved in the years of its diminished velocity:
- 2009: 2.28
- 2010: 1.69
- 2011: 2.48
- 2012: 2.76
- 2013: 2.25
There was some lesser movement going on in 2010, but every other year Rivera's cutter has still been good for the same sort of movement it had in a high-velocity year in '07. And because Mo's cutter has retained that movement, it's retained its ability to do something it's always been able to do better than any other pitch: break bats.
Just ask Mike Moustakas, whose lumber met with a grisly end when it came in contact with this 92 MPH cutter from Rivera in 2011.
This is...this is...this is just amazing. I believe it calls for a low-budget GIF:
This is the equivalent of a dominant center swatting away a layup attempt from a point guard and shouting, "Get that [stuff] outta here!" And of all the images I've ever seen that have captured the true essence of Rivera's cutter, this one of Moustakas solemnly pondering the remains of his bat takes the cake:
There's no official tally for "Most Broken Bats" that I know of, but Rivera would surely be at the top. And while there's also no tally of "Most Hitters Overpowered" that I know of, Rivera would certainly be up there with the Nolan Ryans and the Randy Johnsons of the world if there were. The list of hitters who can sympathize with what happened to our lovely volunteers—Newson, Grace, Peralta and Moustakas—is quite long.
Alas, it's not going to be getting much longer. With the end of the 2013 season looming larger and larger on the horizon, we had all better square ourselves with the fact that the end of an era is coming quickly to a close. Mariano Rivera and his cutter are nearing the end of their farewell tour.
Expect many words to be written about that in the coming weeks, but don't get too hung up on those. You can honor the end of Rivera's career by doing something else:
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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