The cutter, also known as a cut fastball, is a pitch that is a hybrid between a slider and a fastball. It is a power pitch that offers a late sharp break when approaching home plate. Typically it does not have the same octane in regards to velocity as a regular four-seam or two-seam fastball and not as much wipeout break as a slider, but that late break that it has often gets the pitch classified as a slider when referring to pitch type data. When mastered it can be a truly effective and devastating pitch to have in an arsenal. The pitch was widely made famous by the great Mariano Rivera who was known to break a lot of bats of left-handed hitters as they had difficulty squaring up the barrel of the bat on the ball due to the late break in toward their hands. In addition to breaking bats of opposite handed batters, the pitch generally induces a lot of weak contact and more ground balls to go for easy outs, and the addition of the pitch to any pitcher’s arsenal could potentially keep hitters off balance to generate more whiffs.
There may not ever be a cutter as amazing and valuable as Rivera’s, but every year there seems to be a couple of pitchers who could be previously classified as “mediocre” or worse that go on to have a breakout season due to the addition and mastery of a cutter. We saw it last year with Jake Arrieta of the Cubs. Arrieta was a top young arm in the Orioles organization for several years, but was traded in July of 2013 along with Pedro Strop to the Cubs in exchange for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger (ouch, Baltimore!). Before coming over to the Cubs, Arrieta had a lifetime line of a 5.34 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 7.00 K/9, and 4.15 BB/9 in 433.1 IP. But it was when he joined the Cubs that he began to use the cutter. Initially, the results weren’t phenomenal as he was still learning the pitch and using it minimally, but he was seeing better overall results. Fast forward to 2014 and Arrieta ramped up his cutter usage to near 30% and he saw a big jump in his ground ball rate and soft contact rate from the previous year. The cutter was a true revelation for Arrieta as it was the second most valuable cutter in baseball behind Adam Wainwright’s. Arrieta finished the year with a 2.53 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.59 K/9, and 2.36 BB/9 in 156.2 IP.
Two young pitchers who were once regarded as top pitching prospects like Arrieta who have not had breakout success at the Major League level in their young careers yet are Shelby Miller of the Braves and Jake Odorizzi of the Rays. But wouldn’t you know it, each of them has developed a cutter and are seeing improved results because of it. Let’s examine Miller first.
Miller came up through the Cardinals organization and was always praised as a future ace and was even regarded as one of the top 3 pitching prospects in the game by most baseball outlets before the 2013 season. His career got off to a great start that year as he had a 2.02 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 9.39 K/9 through his first 10 starts of his rookie season. Miller would eventually hit some stumbling blocks along the way, but he still finished the season going 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.78 K/9, and 2.96 BB/9 in 173.1 IP and looked to have an amazing future ahead of him. Miller that season was primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher that mixed in the occasional changeup, and he carried that same type of pitch distribution over to the 2014 season as well. However, something was awry with Miller in 2014 as he appeared to have lost command and control of his pitches. While he finished the year with a respectable 3.74 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, his strikeout rate plummeted to 6.25 K/9 and his walk rate rose to 3.59 BB/9. Perhaps the Cardinals lost faith in Miller after those steps backwards or perhaps they just needed to make a baseball decision, but they traded Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins to the Braves in exchange for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden this past off-season. Had the Cardinals known though what adjustments Miller was prepared to make though, maybe they would have held on to him.
Through 7 starts with his new ball club, it has definitely been Miller time as he is the proud owner of a 4-1 record with a 1.60 ERA and 0.93 WHIP to go with 7.80 K/9 and 3.00 BB/9. The improved results can be most likely attributed to the combination of transitioning from using a two-seam fastball just as often as a four-seam fastball and more comfort with his cutter. According to PITCHf/X data, Miller’s two-seam fastball usage this year is at 33.4% while his four-seam fastball usage is at 32.8% (in comparison to last year, he was at 10.3% with the two-seam and 61.6% with the four-seam). The two-seamer is a useful pitch as it is offers some tailing movement as opposed to the more straightness of the four-seamer. Miller threw a cutter 1.8% of the time in 2013 and 5.8% of the time in 2014, but this year he is all the way up 19.5% usage on the pitch. For hitters, this has to be a tough combination to deal with as two-seamers and cutters break/tail in opposite directions at high velocities, so it takes some good pitch recognition or guesswork to know which pitch is coming. And remember how I said that cutters generally induce more weak contact and more groundballs? Well, coinciding, Miller’s groundball rate has climbed from 39.9% last year to 48.7% this year and his soft hit rate has gone up from 16.4% to 21.5% currently. Sure his ERA will not stay below 2.00 and his WHIP is definitely going to climb above 1.00 as he is living on the lucky side of things with a .203 BABIP and 87.9% strand rate. But Miller is clearly doing things differently than he has in the previous seasons, so the overall improvement is not likely something to just disappear. As the season goes on, he may even push the envelope even further with his cutter usage as he grows even more comfortable with the pitch and realizes that it is a game changer.
Next on tap is Mr. Odorizzi. Odorizzi was originally drafted by the Brewers as a 1st round selection in 2008 before making his way to the Royals organization as one of the valuable pieces involved in the Zack Greinke trade prior to the 2011 season. Odorizzi then was dealt to the Rays prior to the 2013 season in the trade that netted the Royals James Shields and Wade Davis. So clearly just judging by the trades that he has been a part of, Odorizzi must have some nice pedigree, and it also is evident in the fact that he was on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list each year from 2011-14. Odorizzi got a couple quick looks in the Majors in 2012 and 2013, but 2014 is the season that he settled in as a fixture of the Rays starting rotation.
Odorizzi’s 2014 rookie season did not look great on the surface, but there were some things to like about him. He finished the season with a 11-13 record, 4.13 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 9.32 K/9, and 3.16 BB/9 in 168 IP. At first glance you’ll see an ERA above 4.00 but a WHIP below 1.30. From my fantasy baseball experience, that instance usually indicates that the pitcher had a high fly ball and/or HR/fly ball rate. Sure enough, Odorizzi’s fly ball rate of 48.7% was the 2nd highest in the Majors, which led to him serving up 1.07 HR/9. So the main thing that Odorizzi needed to do to improve this year was to limit the HR allowed, and what better way to do that than to induce more ground balls and weaker contact?
Odorizzi’s game plan to decrease those HR allowed consists of the addition of a cutter and greater usage of his split-change. Last season a cutter was nonexistent for Odorizzi, but this year he is using it 15.6% of the time while all but scrapping the slider completely from his pitch arsenal. Meanwhile, probably learning a thing or two from teammate Alex Cobb and his amazing split-change, Odorizzi is throwing it 31.3% of the time, which is up from 20.9% last year. I’ve already mentioned the effects of a cutter getting more ground balls and weak contact, and the split-change has similar rewards as it has the downward movement that often leaves hitters getting on top of the ball to hit it on the ground at an infielder for an easy out. With the conscious effort to change his repertoire and evolve away from being a fly ball pitcher, Odorizzi has his fly ball rate down to 38.5% this year while his ground ball rate has soared from 29.9% last year to 39.3% this year. The change in his batted ball profile has led to only 1 HR allowed in 7 starts. While he still cannot be considered a ground ball pitcher, these are definitely noteworthy changes of an evolving young pitcher. Overall for the season, Odorizzi currently is 3-2 with a 2.09 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 7.42 K/9, and 1.52 BB/9 in 47.1 IP. The strikeout rate is down from last year, but the walk rate has so far been cut in half. Sometimes you take the good with the bad, but I would expect Odorizzi to be able to get his strikeout rate back to a higher level as he continues to perfect the changes to his pitch arsenal. Like Miller, Odorizzi’s numbers aren’t going to stay this pretty all season long, but despite not owning Odorizzi in any fantasy leagues, I surely enjoy what he is doing and look forward to seeing him fulfill his potential.