Let’s cut it out with some of the cut fastballs
In our game today, the new pitch that I think far too many pitchers have fallen in love with is the cut fastball. There is a reason for this. Mariano Rivera! Mo has pitched 17 years and become the all-time saves leader by basically throwing one pitch, the cutter, as he discussed in these video interviews the past year with my MLB Network colleagues Harold Reynolds and Bob Costas:
So after seeing his success and his thoughts on the cutter, naturally you will have other pitchers who want to learn to throw it. There is one really big problem with this thinking: Mo’s natural delivery of the ball is to cut it. He has to think to throw a straight four-seam fastball. I have seen some very good pitchers try and use this pitch and get beat around the ballpark. The cutter can be a very good pitch if — and this is a big if! — the pitcher has absolute command of it. There are very few pitchers who have that kind of command of the cutter.
When you don’t have absolute command of it? It simply becomes a batting practice fastball. One big reason pitchers have gone to this pitch is the pitch count. It is a pitch that is designed to be put in play, which in theory is a good thing; balls put in play earlier in the count saves on pitches. The problem with this theory is that balls put in play find holes. If I have a pitcher who has an above average fastball and can locate it at 96 or 97 miles an hour, why would I want him to cut that pitch off to get a little bit of movement that he can’t control and have that pitch be thrown at 90 miles an hour? The answer is, I wouldn’t. People might not realize the difference of only five or six miles an hour, but a hitter most definitely does.
I am going to use my favorite left-handed starting pitcher to illustrate my thinking. Jon Lester has the ability to throw the ball 97 mph with location. He also has a good slider. He is a guy who can overpower hitters. Yet in the last two years he has gone to throwing more and more cutters. If we look back before 2011, he was a guy who was a power pitcher. Low hits per inning, high strikeouts per 9 innings. From 2008 through 2010, he threw 621 innings, struck out 602 and gave up 561 hits. He was 50-21 over that span. In 2011 and through today, he has thrown 348 innings, given up 324 hits and struck out 311. His record over that span is 21-19. You will look at those numbers and say that isn’t that big of a difference. But it is, depending on when you are giving up those hits and when you are striking guys out.
Before this year, his highest BA-against over the last seven years was .257; this year, the league is hitting .277 against him. In 2009, with runners on second base, Lester had a total of 16 1/3 innings pitched and the league hit .140, and he had a 1.65 era and 20 strikeouts. In 2012, he has thrown 10 2/3 innings with runners on second and the league is hitting .311, while his ERA in that situation is 11.81 and he has only nine strikeouts.
This is not because Jon has lost his stuff. It is because he is throwing a cutter he can’t command as well as he can his four-seamer and there is at least 5-mph difference between the two pitches. I believe if Jon went back to just his four-seam 96-mph fastball and slider, we would see what I still view as one of the best left-handed starters in the game.
What pitchers need to realize is that there are two pitchers in the game today who throw true cut fastballs: Mo and Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers. But their cutters are natural. If you watch the game closely, the ball is cutting the second it leaves their hand and keeps boring in on lefties and away from right handed hitters.
So unless you can command it at will, you are only speeding the hitter’s bat up!