Where Mariano Rivera's Cutter Ranks Among Most Unhittable Pitches Ever
When Mariano Rivera retires after the 2013 MLB season, his cutter will also leave the sport forever. All active players who have been victimized by it will rejoice, knowing that they've outlasted a near-unhittable pitch.
How does it compare to baseball's filthiest offerings ever? That's what we'll be ranking in the following slides.
Thanks to the evolution of pitch-tracking technology, it's now possible to determine which particular pitch is being thrown in any situation. Using that information, we can see precisely how unhittable a pitch is in terms of the batting average against it, and how often it results in contact, a home run or a strikeout.
These advances, unfortunately, didn't come along until the 21st century. Therefore, in creating this list, we needed to rely quite a bit on broader statistics and personal testimony.
You will hopefully find it enlightening, nonetheless.
*Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Updated through the games of Sept. 20, 2013.
A pitch isn't legitimately unhittable unless it has staying power.
Opposing batters can adjust to most offerings after seeing them for several seasons. Mariano Rivera's cutter and the handful of special pitches ranked above it made this list because the passage of time has proven that they are exceptions to that norm.
Let's calm down about Koji Uehara's splitter, Jose Fernandez's curveball and the blazing fastballs that highlight Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel's repertoires. None of those 2013 stars has even logged 300 innings in the majors.
Honorable mentions from previous generations include Steve Carlton's curve and Ron Guidry's slider. Their exclusion here is rooted in their propensity for surrendering home runs when making mistakes with those pitches.
The other big group of just-misses who had dominant pitches includes Bob Feller and many elite relievers not named Rivera.
6. Mariano Rivera's Cutter
When profiling Mariano Rivera back in 2009, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated confirmed that the future Hall of Famer discovered his cutter during a 1997 road series against the Detroit Tigers. Matching up the anecdote with Rivera's game log gives us the exact date—June 23.
Since then, his regular-season opponents have a .208 batting average. When wielding the cutter in the playoffs, lineups have combined for an anemic .172 batting average (2 HR in 121.1 IP).
The beauty of this pitch isn't that it misses bats, but rather that it shatters them with alarming frequency, resulting in weak contact. FanGraphs illustrates the phenomenon with this table. Among the 178 individuals with at least 1,000 innings pitched since the '97 season, Rivera owns the lowest batting average on balls in play (.260 BABIP).
ESPNNewYork.com gathered tons of juicy quotes from the Sandman's MLB colleagues.
From Dustin Pedroia:
He puts it in the right spot every time. He never makes mistakes. He’s the best ever at throwing that pitch that no one can figure out how to hit [it]. That’s what makes him so tough for so long, you know what you’re going and you still can’t hit it, that’s pretty frustrating.
A.J. Pierzynski echoed those sentiments:
As a left-handed hitter, it’s so hard to explain to people what his ball does, how it moves, and how late it moves. Sometimes you think it’s an optical illusion because of the way it moves. You just can’t have your brain tell you to hit the pitch the way you’re supposed to hit it in order to get a hit. Your body and brain reacts because you see it out of his hand. When you see it, it just doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do.
Despite all that, higher placement in these rankings would've been undeserved considering his ordinary strikeout rate.
5. Sandy Koufax's Curveball
In today's game, it's no longer unusual for a pitcher to average more than a strikeout per inning over the course of a season. There are even several elite hurlers who averaged that over the course of their careers.
However, Sandy Koufax was way ahead of his time. Nobody else in baseball generated nearly as many whiffs as he did a half-century ago.
The southpaw's signature pitch was a 12-to-6 curveball, which you can view here. Feel free to spend the entire day watching it on a loop.
Thanks to his over-the-top delivery, Koufax was able to create extraordinary vertical movement. His opposition saw it coming, but still couldn't align their swings with its ultimate location.
From 1963-1966 (his finest campaigns), major league pitchers allowed about 0.83 home runs per nine innings with a .248 batting average against. Koufax, in that same span, maintained a microscopic 0.57 HR/9 and .191 BAA.
4. Nolan Ryan's Fastball
Nolan Ryan ranks ahead of Sandy Koufax because he fired his fastball much more often than Koufax spun his curve, yet posted equally unhittable numbers relative to his peers.
The Texas native threw more than 97 percent of his career innings from a lowered pitcher's mound. Major League Baseball made the change after the historically low-scoring 1968 season.
It didn't matter; Ryan was still dominant.
He pitched at least 200 innings in 14 different seasons, but he never allowed more than 20 home runs. The right-hander also led his league in total strikeouts 11 times (the AL nine times, and the NL twice). Perhaps the most telling stat is that Ryan owns an MLB record with seven career no-hitters.
Of course, it's worth noting that he always struggled to command the fastball. No wonder he's the sport's all-time leader in walks.
There is an obvious difference between causing swings-and-misses and unintentionally pitching around opponents. The latter, unfortunately, was observed from Ryan throughout his Hall of Fame career.
3. Pedro Martinez's Curveball
The key to a dominant changeup is being able to throw it at a significantly lower velocity than the fastball without letting the hitter know it's coming.
From that standpoint, Pedro Martinez was a wizard. FanGraphs doesn't have velocity readings from his peak years, but even from 2002-09, he consistently created a 10-mph separation between the two pitches. There must have been an even steeper contrast during his prime years when the heater occasionally reached the high-90s.
Although Martinez is best remembered for his change, he used his curveball nearly as frequently and actually relied on it more to finish off opposing batters.
At his very best, during the 1999 and 2000 seasons, the Dominican right-hander posted a 1.90 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 12.5 K/9. In that time, he recorded more complete games than losing decisions. Also consider the fact that he spent those summers in the offensive friendly confines of Fenway Park at the height of the Steroid Era.
His success would not have been possible without the effectiveness of his vicious breaking ball in two-strike counts.
2. Randy Johnson's Slider
Randy Johnson spent his first several major league seasons trying to get his 6'10" frame in sync, and perhaps he stuck around a few years too long (retired at age 46), but everything in between was glorious.
From 1993-2004, the Big Unit's presence alone was enough to cause trembling from the poor souls in the batter's box.
His slider was unhittable and everybody knew it. Johnson used it 38.6 percent of the time from 2002-09, according to FanGraphs, a figure you seldom see for any breaking ball thrown by a starting pitcher. The site shows that he ranked first among all starters in swinging-strike percentage in 2002, and second only behind Johan Santana in 2004.
There has arguably never been a tougher matchup for left-handed batters. Lefties batted only .199/.278/.294 against Johnson, and Grantland's Jonah Keri writes that he limited them to a historically unrivaled .331 OPS in 1999.
However, even those splits don't properly represent his awesomeness. Johnson faced a disproportionately high percentage of right-handed batters during his career, as managers felt that putting their regular lefties in the lineup would be giving away outs.
Nonetheless, his slider was so successful because of its velocity and late, downward movement, and his willingness to throw it inside to righties.
1. Walter Johnson's Fastball
Walter Johnson was the most effective pitcher ever, and there's really no disputing that.
He ranks first all time with 110 shutouts. A two-time MVP, Johnson perennially contended for the American League lead in strikeouts. From 1910-1924, he finished with the highest total 12 times. Mariano Rivera, Pedro Martinez and Lefty Grove all finished their careers with better adjusted earned run averages (subscription required), but this old-school ace maintained his across two decades and thousands of more innings.
The coolest part about Johnson? He thrived without varying his pitch selection, according to those who reluctantly batted against him (h/t Bob Ryan, The Boston Globe).
Personal testimonies suggest that the Washington Senators legend could dial up his fastball into triple digits.
However, that wasn't the key to Johnson's success.
In reality, his unorthodox delivery made it nearly impossible to see the ball coming. Johnson had a deceptive side-arm motion and exceptional wingspan that enabled him to get closer to home plate before releasing pitches.
No disrespect to Mo, but Johnson is the poster child for single-pitch dominance.
Ely compensates for a lack of unhittable pitches with plenty of unmissable tweets.