Rise of The Cutter

You are probably sick to death of the “Year Of The Pitcher” label by now, as it has been trotted out endlessly this year. The lowest scoring division series in history just reaffirmed that we’re going to keep hearing about it, though, and people will continue to speculate as to why the guys on the mound have seemingly grabbed the upper hand in their fight against offense. Looking at the ALCS match-ups, a thought came to me – perhaps the Year Of The Pitcher is due to the Year Of The Cutter.

You can’t watch a baseball game without seeing a guy who recently added a cut fastball to his repertoire. It is undoubtedly the hot pitch in baseball right now, and it will be in full display when the playoffs kick off tomorrow.

What team threw more cutters than any other in baseball this year? The Phillies, at 15.8 percent of their total pitches. In second place was the Tampa Bay Rays, who just lost out to the Texas Rangers – the team that threw the third most cutters in baseball.

Other playoff teams and their respective rank in cutter usage? The Yankees (6th), Reds (8th), Braves (20th), Giants (21st), and Twins (26th). The Giants are the only team among the remaining four that don’t have a starter who uses the pitch, but their caveman-like closer throws it 35 percent of the time.

In fact, nearly half of the starters taking the hill in each LCS will feature the cutter with regularity.

Roy Halladay – 34.2%
Cliff Lee – 19.8%
Andy Pettitte – 20.4%
C.J Wilson – 18.6%
Phil Hughes – 16.4%
Cole Hamels – 14.7%
Joe Blanton – 6.5%

And that’s just the starters. Brian Wilson, as we mentioned, will use it to close out games for San Francisco. Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin both throw the pitch a lot coming out of the Phillies bullpen. The Rangers don’t have any relievers who lean on the pitch, but the Yankees make up for that, giving high leverage innings to Kerry Wood and that Mariano Rivera character, who I’ve heard dabbles with the pitch from time to time.

This is a pretty impressive crop of names, all with one secondary pitch (for everyone but Rivera, anyway) in common. Given the success these guys are enjoying, its no wonder that the cut fastball has become the in vogue pitch of our times. Given that its a relatively new weapon that has risen heavily in usage over the last couple of years, I do wonder if we need to explore its role in the offensive downturn. It’s clearly a weapon that pitchers didn’t use extensively before, and with the best arms in baseball leaning heavily on it, it’s worth exploring whether this one pitch has had a significant impact on the shift in run prevention.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

50 Responses to “Rise of The Cutter”

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  1. Boomer says:

    “It is undoubtedly the hot pitch in baseball right now”

    What’s the % of cutters thrown this year as compared to past years?

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  2. MikeTheWilliams says:

    Wow. That looks like it might explain what’s been going on more than the “now that batters aren’t juicing, pitchers are doing better” explanation for TYOTP.

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  3. KC says:

    What defines a cutter in PitchFX?

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    • Doug Gray says:

      FC…. but, there are many problems still with using the Pitch FX algorithm to determine pitch type. It is right at times, but it is wrong way too often still to use their pitch classification as a whole IMO.

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      • Joe says:

        Agreed. Looking at the percentages of classifications it clearly doesn’t know what to do with some in between pitches (cutters vs FB, cutters vs sliders, CB vs sliders, etc.). I’ve noticed it has an effect too on the FB velocity too as certain pitch types move into and out of the FB category.

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  4. CSJ says:

    If lincecum is able to keep this speed up on his slider with the new grip, it is closing in on cutter territory. It’s still about 4 mph slower than his fastball, but it’s close.

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  5. JG says:

    I’ve heard some pitchers don’t throw it because they don’t have the right build. Apparently, you’re supposed to have broad shoulders and a tall physique to throw the cutter. Rivera is obviously the exception there.

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    • Bill says:

      That is silly.

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    • delv says:

      Maybe more noteworthy is the conception that throwing a cutter makes it difficult to throw a change-up. –Something about the proximity between the grips interfering with each other.

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      • cs3 says:

        “Maybe more noteworthy is the conception that throwing a cutter makes it difficult to throw a change-up. –Something about the proximity between the grips interfering with each other”

        many pitchers today arent really throwing a tradional changeup, but instead are throwing more of a splitter (like timmy and several other giants pithers) so this shouldnt be an issue at all for those guys.

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  6. Bryz says:

    I’m not sure if this is a legit way of looking at it, but here’s the sum of the pitch values per 100 pitches (the sum of the wFB/C, wSL/C, etc.) for all 30 teams for the past 4 years (in order from 2010 to 2007).

    FB: 0.54, -5.79, -2.46, -5.92
    SL: 19.68, 18.21, 16.41, 15.05
    CT: 14.97, 13.09, 3.62, -5.72
    CB: 5.23, 9.99, 5.61, -5.11
    CH: 6.79, 1.28, -3.06, 2.97
    SF: -2.54, 30.3, -8.93, -5.93
    KN: 2.00, 2.11, -11.55, -3.27

    All of these have some random variation except for two: the slider and the cutter. The slider has consistently been an above-average pitch in MLB for the past 4 years, while the cutter has seen the most growth in becoming a better pitch. At least according to this data, pitchers are having more success with the cutter.

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  7. Andrew says:

    Agree with this hypothesis. The next step would be figuring out a way to test it. Announcers discuss the pitch as having particular benefits when facing opposite-handed batters (particularly for left-handed starters facing right-handed batters). Therefore, a useful look might be whether the pitchers that use it often do better than expected against opposite-handed oppositon batters, or how much of the run decline in baseball this year has been due to a drop-off in opposite-handed batter damage. There are probably a fair number of control samples here too, as many pitchers seem to have added the pitch mid caeer (obviously not a perfect experiment but still useful).

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  8. JoeS says:

    What took so long for everyone else to follow Mo’s footsteps?

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  9. The Duder says:

    Great article. I’d definitely like to see overall usage numbers for the cutter over the past 5 years.

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  10. awayish says:

    great idea. follow-up analysis immensely fruitful.

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  11. TheUnrepentantGunner says:

    The parsing of data will be a challenge for sure, but the easiest way around that might be to look at data on the whole from pitchers before they had the cutter and after. I realize there are some causation/correlation issues there, but across a big enough sample there should be some validity.

    The other problem i can see is people learn a new pitch after a bad year much moreoften than after a good year, but you can then factor that in against people who had below average years before and didnt add another pitch.

    Definitely worth investigating…

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  12. Mike K says:

    Though we obviously don’t have hard-data, I wonder if we could use some anecodotal evidence to determine if “new” pitches often correspond to a decline in offense. Recent example would be the split-fingered fastball, which was quite popular late-70’s through the mid-80’s. Could probably use the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers to get your list of split-finger pitchers…

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    • drbils says:

      I’m interested to know if “new” pitches (or even drastic changes in pitch mix) correlate to injury frequency. Learn a new pitch, subject your body to a new type of abuse.

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  13. Damaso's Burnt Shirt says:

    The Jays used to throw it a lot (because of both Roy’s influence and former pitching coach Brad Arnsberg), but since they had a few arm injuries from guys who threw it a lot (Marcum and Litsch in particular) they’ve gone to using the change up more.

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  14. DrBGiantsfan says:

    No proof, but I am of the opinion that advances in pitching arsenals such as the cutter, variations on the changeup/splitter, spike curves, etc are as much responsible for the resurgence in pitching as the decline in PED use. After all, pitchers used PED as much or more than hitters, so the field was kind of level there.

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    • Eric Walker, of The Sinister Firstbaseman and A’s manual fame, discusses on his website, High Boskage House, how PEDs is NOT the reason for the heightened offense of the past 17 seasons (he says the ball got juiced) plus he also discusses how PEDs did not improve performance, in any case, for the cheaters.

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  15. LeeTro says:

    Brian Wilson’s offspeed pitch is a slider. It’s 7 MPH slower than his fastball and only has +1 inch of vertical movement. I also think Pettitte’s cutter has turned into a slider. 6 MPH differential and only +1.5 inches of vertical movement. Wood’s 89 MPH pitch is a tweener, so you might be right to include it. Cliff’s is also a tweener.

    Something I’ve always found interesting is that the average cutter has basically no horizontal movement. This year, the average hor. movement for a RH cutter was .43 inches TOWARDS a RH hitter. The average LH cutter was .83 inches towards a RH hitter, which makes more sense. Guys like C.J. and Halladay have “reverse” cutters, yet they’re quite effective. Relative to their normal fastballs, it seems like it’s breaking towards opposite handed hitters. It really only takes that illusion to make it an effective pitch.

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  16. NEPP says:

    Hamels throws a cutter now because Cliff Lee showed him what an effective pitch it was last year and worked with him on developing it.

    Madson throws it because he sometimes gets bored with strikeouts and likes to see the ball fly into the seats.

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  17. Gio says:

    Major League: Rise of The Cutter starring Charlie Sheen.

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  18. Evan says:

    I throw a cutter, but at a measly 45mph its fairly hittable for most major league batters

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    • me says:

      that depends on the speed of your fastball. If your fastball tops out at 85 then your 45 mph cutter would be insane assuming you did not tip the pitch by throwing it differently.

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  19. NobodyDoesItLikeMO says:

    I’ve definitely noticed how much of a difference having a cutter makes for pitchers. With Hughes, he obviously got more comfortable as he matured, but it made hitters a lot less comfortable with what they are looking for. Rick Porcello is another young pitcher who recently developed a cutter and I expect it to help him a lot also. It really helped him miss more solid contact against him as the year went on. I expect him to start missing more bats soon too.

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    • NobodyDoesItLikeMO says:

      I’ll also add that his “cutter” has been registering as his slider. He changed his slider grip so it’s a cutter with a ton of movement.

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  20. philosofool says:

    One thing we need to control for is a new word for the same pitch. Just because pitchers are calling a pitch “a cutter” a lot now doesn’t mean that they haven’t been throwing the pitch for three decades. I’m not saying either way whether this is an issue, but we need to check that there’s a real difference in what pitchers are doing and not just what they’re saying.

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  21. MikeM says:

    Pitchers from the 90’s that I seem to remember threw cutters:

    – Al Leiter
    – Andy Pettite
    – Kevin Appier
    – David Cone
    – Kevin Tapani
    – Greg Maddux

    Who else do you remember?

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  22. Poster Nutbag says:

    From Neyer/James Guide to Pitches…

    Tom Seaver mentions it in his 1984 book. In 1953, Ethan Allen wrote about what may have been a cutter. ROy Parmalee also is thought of to have thrown a cutter. As did Juan Marichal.

    Apparently, it’s been around for a while….

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  23. noseeum says:

    Here’s another vote for someone else doing a bunch of cutter analysis that I can lazily enjoy from afar. Thank you in advance.

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  24. Greg says:

    I remember when the gyroball came out and it was the hot pitch in baseball. Sweet Potato casserole! What an era we embarked on then!!

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  25. mowill says:

    The cutter is truly a legit ‘new’ weapon. It might have been used as much last year but it is a pitch that was hardly thrown twenty years ago. And think what it does, for a starter facing oppo hitters it gives him two entirely different changes of speed designed specificly to get oppo hitters out. And for starters that already throw two and four seamers you get a pitcher who can tail the ball away and get in on the hands of hitter from both sides of the plate in addition to making the four seamer look and feel faster than it really is.

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  26. Brian Wilson has said in numerous interviews that he saw Mariano show his grip on the cutter on TV and incorporated it into his repertoire since. He has been pushing the Giants coaches for years now to let him use the cutter exclusively, but his boost in performance this year was from him relying more on his fastball and bringing his curveball back, from what I recall.

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  27. guy above me is a clown says:

    thanks a lot mariono rivera

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  28. Bliksteen says:

    To add to that list of cutter throwers from the 90’s/early aughts should include Russ Ortiz. I didn’t pay much attention to the world outside of the Giants when I was younger and his was the first cutter I noticed. Announcers kept saying he had the best “natural cutter.” I guess just the way he held the ball and got his body around. It is clear that Mariano, natural or not, will be remembered forever as the cutter’s pioneer similar to Bruce Sutter with the Splitter (notice neither invented the pitch but perfected and mainstreamed it).

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  29. Danny says:

    mowill has it right. If you watch Halladay, he uses variations of 4seam, 2seam, and cutters to make him so effective, and probably can’t be all categorized in definitive pitch allocations as they will vary. They all have the same arm angle, and come in at roughly the same speed (5-8 mph of one another) to roughly the same spot, and with about 25-30 feet left will dip, dive, dart, dodge, and dodge, a number of ways. That is why hitters really never “square up” the ball. I saw him pitch with Tor a few years ago from behind the plate, and the ball never stays on a straight plane. It always has movement somewhere, and it was hidden until late. He took a no hitter into the 5th or 6th that game against Bal and that was a few years ago, and has only gotten better since.

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  30. Mr Punch says:

    Jon Lester is another guy who uses his cutter very effectively against opposite-handed hitters in particular – he gets RHB swinging at totally unhittable pitches.

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  31. Alireza says:

    It is entirely possible to lean too much on the cutter (unless you are Rivera, obviously). Chad Billingsley shifted back to more four seam fastballs and significantly improved his numbers.

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