Cutters and sinkers

If we look around the league at pitching — more specifically at the pitches that pitchers are using — we always go through periods where a certain pitch becomes the new pitch every pitcher wants to learn. Back in the 80s it was the split-finger, or forkball. Former Giants manager Roger Craig was a big believer in it. Bruce Sutter, a closer, made it popular.

The pitch that is so popular today is the cutter. Greg Maddux was the first starting pitcher I can remember using it regularly. But it was another closer who made the pitch so popular. Mariano Rivera has pitched 17 years and become the all-time saves leader with over 600 saves while using basically one pitch: the cutter.

The first problem I see with this pitch is that, if thrown incorrectly, it stresses the elbow a lot. The second problem I see is that if you don’t have absolute command of it, it is simply a fastball that typically is 5 to 7 MPH slower than a four-seam fastball. Maddux had absolute command of his. What many people don’t know is that Mariano’s cutter is natural. That is how the ball comes out of his hand. There are two pitchers in the game today whose cutter is a result of the natural way they deliver the ball: Mo and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.

To tell if a cutter is natural, all you have to do is watch the ball come out of their hand. With both of these guys, the ball is cutting the second it leaves their hand. They are thinking about locating it, but they are not thinking about what they have to do to make the ball cut. That is why Mo’s cutter was clocked in the mid to upper 90s in his prime. Jansen’s is the same.

What drives me crazy is seeing pitchers who have been blessed with the ability to throw four-seam fastballs 95 MPH with command, but choose to use a cutter that sacrifices velocity and command.

My favorite example of this is one of my favorite pitchers in the game: Jon Lester. Lester has great mechanics and the ability to throw the ball 95 MPH and command it. But he uses the cutter, which he throws around 90 MPH and does not have command if it. He has a slider and a change-up. He does not need the cutter.

Perfect example: Opening Day he was shutting out the Yankees, got in a bases-loaded jam with Francisco Cervelli at the plate, and he threw him a 90-MPH cutter that was supposed to be inside. It cut right to the middle of the plate, and Cervelli hit a two-run single for the only two runs Lester gave up that day. What people who didn’t play the game don’t understand is that at 95 MPH and higher, you can make way more mistakes and get away with them than you can with a pitch thrown at 90 MPH.

The other pitch that drives me crazy is the two-seam fastball, or sinker. It is a great pitch if you can command it, but again you are going to sacrifice velocity and command. Guys who are blessed with the ability to throw the baseball 95-plus MPH and command it need to realize that a two-seam fastball is a pitch that is meant to be put in play by the hitter. Balls that are put in play can find holes to get through. If you can command the sinker and it has good downward movement, it can be a great pitch.

I think that the cutter and the two-seam fastball have become so popular because of the stupid pitch count. Pitchers want the ball put in play within the first three pitches of an at-bat. It is as though the strikeout is taboo anymore, because relying on strikeouts will elevate the pitcher’s pitch count too quickly and he won’t be able to go deep into the game because of that stupid clicker every pitching coach has in his hand. I was always of the belief that it didn’t matter how many pitches it took to get the hitter out, as long as you got him out!

It is my opinion that if you are a pitching coach at the Major League level and you have to look at a clicker to tell you that a pitcher is tired, you shouldnt be a pitching coach. A pitcher’s mechanics will tell you when he is getting tired, and that can change from start to start. You look at the best pitcher in the game today (in my opinion): Justin Verlander. He throws a four-seam fastball, a curve ball and a change-up.

There will be some days where Verlander will get tired after 90 pitches, and there will be days that he is still able to not break down on his back side and stay on top of the ball after 130 pitches. That is why pitchers run so much and do a lot of lifting weights with their legs. When a pitcher gets tired, his back leg will start to break down. When that happens, it forces him down the mound too soon, and his arm is stuck behind him causing him to blow open his front side to get the ball to the release point.

If, as a pitching coach, you know what to look for, there is no need for a clicker. That, and I always believed the opposing lineup will let you know when you are done. When they start rattling the outfield walls with your pitches, you are done.

One final note on the cutter and two-seamer: Yu Darvish was within one out of a perfect game the other night. Darvish was clocked at 97 MPH in that game. The final hitter he faced was a pinch hitter. A pinch hitter is coming to the plate looking for the first hard thing he sees, and he is going to swing at it. Darvish could have thrown him a get-me-over breaking ball or a 97 MPH four-seamer. He threw him a 90-MPH two-seam fastball right in the middle of the plate. A mistake. Had it been 97, he could have gotten away with the mistake. A pinch hitter who has sat there the whole game and is coming to the plate cold ain’t catching up to a 97-MPH fastball.

The moral of the story is: if you have a big gun, shoot it.

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