Savvy baseball fans know the difference between a cutter and a slider, but what differentiates the two pitches is a mystery to many. Roger McDowell and Randy St. Claire understand the nuances of both. Former big-league relievers, they now serve as pitching coaches for the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins, respectively.
McDowell and St. Claire discussed the ins and outs of the cutter — and its hybrid cousin, the slider — in separate interviews last month.
St. Claire: “For me, a cutter is a fastball that’s moving. It runs in on that left-handed hitter’s hands. There is velocity to it, and there is no spin to the ball that you can pick up. A slider has spin and usually a tight dot to it. It’s usually when you throw a poor slider that it gets hit. On a cutter, the hitter does not pick up the spin on the ball. At the last, just before contact, the ball is sliding. For a left-hander it’s sliding to the right, and for a right-hander it’s sliding to the left. It’s very short break, too. A cutter is a contact pitch that makes them mis-hit the ball.”
McDowell: “Basically, you just take a four-seam fastball and offset it. It’s a very small offset from your four-seam fastball. You make a very slight turn — I guess it would be horizontal. You basically turn the seams. On a four-seam fastball, you’re gripping across the seams, and a cutter would be a slight angle off the four seams. You get a natural movement from that without having to do anything at the end, like on a curveball or a slider, where there’s a turn in your wrist. There’s more of a turn in the wrist on a curveball than a slider, but you can get away from that, just by off-setting a fastball, and hopefully it will cut.”
St. Claire: “The more you start manipulating the ball to get it to cut, the more velocity you lose on the ball. You have to keep your wrist behind the ball and get the finger pressure just right, so that the ball moves six to eight inches but looks just like a fastball. It’s a pitch that usually takes awhile to learn, but there are exceptions to all rules. Some guys get it right away. For other guys it takes a year, or a year and a half, to learn.
“Josh Johnson’s slider is actually like a cutter at times, because he throws it so hard — sometimes 90-91 mph. When he’s throwing a slider and doesn’t get on top of the ball, it kind of just has a cut action to it. It doesn’t have that true slider depth.”
McDowell: “There are some pitchers who will inadvertently cut the ball, just by the way they get around the pitch. Usually it’s a four-seam fastball that has a little bit of cut to it, whether it’s in their delivery, where they throw across their body a little bit, going to their glove side — it has a tendency to cut. For some young pitchers who aren’t practicing to throw a cutter, it’s a pitch that is more accidental than not.”
McDowell: “From a slider standpoint, it’s arm angle. More times than not it’s a lower arm slot. If you’re talking about curveball and slider arm slots, a curveball is more of an over-the-top delivery and a slider is a little lower. As far as cutters, you have Mariano Rivera who has a lower arm slot, but a [Chris] Carpenter or [Adam] Wainwright has a higher arm slot. They both throw cutters, they just have different action on them. Over the years, with their experience and how finely-tuned they’ve been able to make those pitches, they look like a fastball. Then, over the last 10 feet or so, they start moving in to a lefthander.
“The cutter has been a pitch that’s been gauged mostly for a hitter who is opposite from what the pitcher‘s arm side is. It’s lefthanders throwing the cutter in, like Cliff Lee and Jon Lester. On the right-hand side, it’s guys like Rivera, Carpenter and Wainwright. Tim Hudson throws the best cutter on our staff.
“The cutter isn’t determined by whether you have a slider or a curveball arm slot. I think you can throw a cutter from pretty much any arm slot.”
St. Claire: “Guys usually learn a cutter later in their careers. You don’t see too many guys coming from the minor leagues who have cutters. I’m talking about young guys. Guys who have been around for a long time will come up and throw it. Mainly it’s older guys who develop that pitch.
“Most minor-league systems work on developing a four-seam fastball, a sinking fastball, your basic curveball or slider, and a changeup. You start getting into, ‘How many pitches do you want a guy to develop?’ If you give a guy five pitches to try to develop, they suffer. It’s hard to develop five pitches, so you work on two or three at the minor-league level and as they progress you maybe start adding in the extra pitches. It’s usually as guys get older that they’re looking to do a little something different. Maybe they have trouble running balls in on a hitter, so they develop a cutter to get it in on that hitter’s hands.”
McDowell: “A lot of it has to do with the experience of the pitcher. From a younger pitcher’s standpoint, it’s actually knowing what a slider looks like. It has depth and the cutter usually doesn’t have depth. It’s usually a same-plane pitch. Younger pitchers don’t always have that understanding.
“We do have some young pitchers who are learning a cutter, even in our minor-league system. For me, it’s usually an easier pitch to teach, from the standpoint of… A lot of young pitchers want to see a break. They want to see the ball doing something, so what happens with their slider is that it becomes more of a slurve. That’s not the design of the pitch. The design of the pitch is to have depth going away from righties and down and in to left-handed hitters It’s similar to a cutter in that you want it to look like a fastball until the last 10 feet.”
St. Claire: “If you walked around this room and asked everybody how they held their slider, you’d probably get 12 different answers. The cutter is the same way. It’s just that with a cutter you can’t get too much wrist action. A lot of guys, when they first start learning to throw a cutter, will get caught in between a slider and a cutter, trying to make the ball move. Their wrist action is different to where they start losing velocity on it. You don’t want that. When you start to lose velocity, it almost becomes a slider. They’re two different pitches.”