Making The Cut?
Cutter is the hot pitch of the decade, but does it have staying power?
For every generation, there's a pitch.
In the 1950s and '60s, the slider—at first dismissed as the "nickel curve"—came into vogue.
Then in the late 1970s and '80s, pitchers like Bruce Sutter started messing around with split-finger fastball grips.
Welcome to the era of the cutter.
In the past decade all around baseball, pitchers have added the cut fastball as a tweak or an overhaul. What you can't find is a consensus on whether that's a good or a bad thing.
Thrown properly, a cut fastball has a small break to the glove side of the pitcher; so for a righthander the pitch cuts in on lefthanded batters. Many veteran coaches say it's really the true slider that pitchers threw in the 1950s and '60s, rather than the slurvier pitch that is called a slider today.
What a cut fastball does at its best is give pitchers a weapon against opposite-handed batters. A lefty pitcher with an average fastball and a good changeup often struggles to pitch to righthanders because he lacks the ability to bust them inside unless he locates his fastball extremely well. The cut fastball gives him something to keep hitters from reaching out over the plate.
"For a lot of lefthanded pitchers it makes a big difference," a National League scouting director said. "You find out some of the same things you saw with the split. A lot of reasons these pitching coaches instruct certain guys to develop them is they need something off the fastball. They needed to come up with something different."
At the same time, the pitch is often used by righthanders who struggle to locate to their glove side. In that case, it's often a shortcut that pitchers use to work inside, instead of learning how to command their fastball to the glove side of the plate, which often is a sign of problems in their delivery.
Weapon or crutch? That's just one of the questions baseball insiders raise about the cut fastball, making it a pitch of contradictions. It's easy to learn, but hard to throw properly. It can take a non-prospect and make him a big leaguer, but it's also been blamed for derailing established big leaguers' careers.
And paradoxically, to throw a cutter properly requires that a pitcher focus on not cutting the ball.
Those contradictions explain in large part why there is such a disagreement over whether the cut fastball is an excellent weapon or a pitch best left alone.
The Split Splits
The last time there was this much disagreement about a pitch, Sutter was burying hitters with his split-fingered fastball en route to the Hall of Fame.
When Sutter learned how to throw the split, he was a minor league pitcher struggling to bounce back from an arm injury that had sapped his fastball. He soon became one of the best closers in the game.
Such a success story was irresistible to struggling pitchers throughout baseball. Roger Craig and other masters of the split began teaching it to pitchers throughout their organizations.
But eventually elbow injuries to Sutter and others turned it into a pitch that scared teams more than it intrigued them. Now it's nearly impossible to find a team that teaches the split-fingered fastball, and many teams actively discourage their pitchers from throwing the pitch.
As the split waned in popularity, the cut fastball was waiting for its chance. The cutter just needed a success story, a Sutter-like rags to riches tale, to convince players and coaches. Mariano Rivera proved to be the perfect pitchman.
Rivera didn't really go out intending to throw a cutter. Because of how he gripped the baseball and how his wrist turned, his natural delivery imparted a nasty cut action to his fastball. Very few pitchers have ever been able to succeed on only one pitch, but Rivera has consistently dominated lineups even though batters always know they'll be seeing the cutter.
With Rivera as the pied piper, many other pitchers tried to learn to do what Rivera does naturally.
Learning To Throw It
Teaching a pitcher to throw the cut fastball is easy. Teaching one to throw it properly is much, much harder.
For many pitchers, it's too tempting to try throwing it by cutting off their delivery, stopping their arm more quickly than normal with a sharp deceleration. Thrown properly, a cut fastball is thrown with the same delivery as a fastball. The crucial difference comes in how the ball is held.
"They key is, once you get a proper grip, then all they have to concern themselves with is throwing a fastball. It's a fastball with a little bit of a different grip," said Mel Queen, the longtime Blue Jays pitching coach who helped resurrect Roy Halladay's career in part by teaching him the cutter.
Adding to the complexity of the cut fastball, there's more than one way to grip the pitch. Some grip the ball with the two fingers slid over to the right side of the ball (for a righthander). Queen, who now serves as a senior adviser for player development with the Jays, prefers a grip that's similar to that of a four-seam fastball.
"Take your four-seam grip. Where there is writing in the middle of the two seams, I have that on the side so they use it as a reference point," Queen said. "Then spin the (writing) toward me a quarter inch and put pressure on outside of the middle finger on that seam. Now instead of the wrist being completely straight, your wrist turned a little to left."
It sounds easy, but pitchers, being competitive by nature, often mess it up at this point. If they know they are throwing a cut fastball, they want to see it cut from the first time they throw it. And that means they are likely to try to cut the pitch with their arm, prematurely halting their extension at the end of their delivery. So Queen doesn't let them get near a mound for the first several days they are learning the cutter.
Instead he has a pair of pitchers stand 10 to 15 feet apart, aiming to throw to the bare-hand side of a righthanded throwing partner. By doing that, Queen tries to get the pitchers to forget about the pitch's movement and make sure they are fully following through on their delivery. From that distance, in fact, the ball will not cut if the pitcher is throwing it properly.
"If it breaks two inches at 15 feet they aren't doing it right. I just want to see a little bit of spin," Queen said. "The worst thing you can do is put them on the mound right away throwing from 60 feet."
It seems counterintuitive, but if at the shorter distance a pitching coach can't see anything but a little bit of spin, he knows the pitcher is learning the pitch and the delivery. If he sees a the fastball cutting, he knows the pitcher is throwing it improperly.
A Whole New Career
For Reds reliever Logan Ondrusek, the cut fastball proved to be the weapon he needed to transform his career.
Coming into spring training in 2009, Ondrusek was on shaky ground. Throughout his career he'd proven to be a swingman, the kind of useful arm that helps fill out minor league pitching staffs so that the prospects don't burn out their arms.
He came into the 2009 season with a 13-29, 4.67 career record in four pro seasons, none of them above Class A. He was much more likely to be released than to find his way to the big leagues.
But then he learned how to throw the cutter, something he picked up from Reds minor league pitching coach Tom Brown.
"I got a hold of that and figured out how to throw it," Ondrusek said earlier this spring. "Things took off from there. My confidence shot up."
With his new pitch, Ondrusek didn't record an ERA above 2.00 in stops at high Class A, Double-A and Triple-A. That set him up to earn a job in the Reds' big league bullpen this spring. In his first nine appearances in the big leagues, he threw the cutter 43 percent of the time, which is more than he throws his traditional fastball.
What's interesting is that the cut fastball also improved the rest of his stuff.
"By keeping it small and hard, I think he actually began throwing harder because he got better extension and hand speed," Reds pitching coordinator Mack Jenkins said.
Ondrusek's minor league teammate Travis Wood also perfected a cutter in 2009. Before that, Wood, a lefthander, didn't really have the fastball to bust righthanders inside, so they crowded the plate looking for him to pitch them away.
The cut fastball gave him the ability to all of sudden keep righthanders from getting comfortable by taking back the inside of the strike zone. The results were dramatic. Wood went 4-9, 7.09 in his first try at Double-A in 2008. He went 9-3, 1.21 in his return to the Southern League last season, earning a promotion to Triple-A.
With success like that, it may seem like the cutter can be a career changer. But Ondrusek's added velocity isn't common. In fact, many clubs have concerns that the cutter saps velocity. If you ask around baseball for an example of a pitcher who may have been better off never learning a cutter, Dodgers righthander Chad Billingsley is a name that comes up often.
When Billingsley broke into the majors in 2006, he was a fastball pitcher (65 percent of his pitches) who mixed in enough curveballs and sliders to keep hitters honest. The cut fastball was something he threw just a couple of times a game.
Now Billingsley throws a cut fastball nearly 25 percent of the time, according to Baseball Information System's data on Fangraphs.com, and throws his fastball less than 50 percent of the time. At the same time his velocity has dipped and his ERA has climbed.
"Coming up, he was 95-96 (mph) at his best," Dodgers assistant general manager Logan White said. "Now his fastball has backed off. He spins off everything in his mechanics. You get on the side of the baseball. Your velocity backs up a little bit and you get flat at the plate."
The 'Ow' Factor
The concern about whether the cut fastball is a help or a hindrance explains why some coaches are uneasy about teaching the pitch. As they see it, the risk of ruining a good arm outweighs the payoff of adding a useful third or fourth pitch.
That also explains why there isn't really a team in baseball that teaches the cutter to most of its pitchers on an organization-wide basis. Instead it is usually applied case by case when it could work with a specific pitcher. Every starting pitcher in most organizations is told to develop a changeup, but no one mandates that everyone learn the cutter.
Even proponents of the pitch agree that the cutter can damage arms if it's not thrown properly. What the supporters and detractors can't agree on is whether most pitchers can learn how to throw it properly.
"For me, it has to be taught correctly and it can't be overused," an American League minor league pitching coach said.
"It's pretty easy to see," the coach explained. "If he's throwing it up there and his delivery is cut off and his arm is not decelerating properly. If you don't teach it right, that's a lot of stress on your arm. You stop that force from coming forward—that hurts."
If a pitcher throws a cutter with the same delivery and the same extension as a fastball, then there is little harm in throwing the pitch. But when a pitcher starts tilting his body, getting on the side of the baseball (with his grip) or cutting off his follow-through, then problems can start piling up.
Scouts and even fans actually can use a simple rule of thumb to tell if a cutter is being thrown the right way. If it's done properly, a cut fastball is thrown at equal or close to equal velocity as the pitcher's fastball. If you see a pitcher throwing a cut fastball that is regularly three or four mph slower than his fastball, it's a good sign that he's not throwing it properly.
That also mean the odds are better that eventually their cutter will take a toll on the pitcher's arm, which will be another example for opponents of the pitch to point to.
"I think the cutter takes away from fastball velocity and it takes away from your other pitches," White said. "It's the old split comparison. The split got this hype and then it faded away. It's hard on arms. The cutter is becoming the same. They lose their good slider and curveball and become a flat-plane guy.
"If you're trying to save a guy's career or he's had trouble learning a curveball or slider, fine. But if you take a good fastball pitcher and teach him a cutter, I think it gives him short-term success and hurts their long-term ability."
The cutter isn't a pitch that is taught to Rookie-league pitchers—they are usually asked to focus on throwing four-seamers to develop arm strength. Consider it more of a graduate-level course on pitching: something a pitcher in Double-A is taught to give a different wrinkle, which is why other pitching experts are enamored with the pitch.
Rick Knapp, the Tigers pitching coach, believes in a properly thrown cutter, partly because he wants his pitchers to always keep thinking of ways to make the ball do different things.
"To me manipulating the baseball is a part of pitching," he said. "It's very dangerous to tell a player anytime to not experiment with manipulating the ball. Anytime you detract from a player learning how to manipulate the ball, you take away his creativity."
As Knapp explains, if you talk to 100 pitching coaches you may get 100 different answers about the cutter. That's why it may take another decade to determine if the cut fastball is the split-finger pitch of the present, or a pitch with staying power.