A good cutter can turn bats into butter
If there's ever a movie about the life and career of baseball's greatest closer, Mariano Rivera, one of the pivotal scenes could play out something like this:
EXT. YANKEE STADIUM -- 1997 -- DAY
MARIANO RIVERA and his pinstriped teammate, RAMIRO MENDOZA, are playing catch. Rivera throws the ball to Mendoza and the ball looks like it's going straight, but in SLOW MOTION, we see it CUT drastically to the left, crossing up Mendoza, who drops it and laughs while picking it off the grass and shaking his head.
Whoa. What ... what was THAT?
Mendoza throws the ball back to Rivera, who catches it.
I don't know.
Rivera throws the ball back. Same movement. Same laughter from his buddy, although this time Mendoza manages to catch it.
Seriously, how are you making the ball move like that? I've never seen anything like it.
Seriously. I don't know.
Rivera has called the pitch, which has made him the top closer in the history of the Major Leagues and a certain Hall of Famer, a "gift from God." Hitters call it something, well, just about the opposite, and probably with words that can't be printed here.
But one thing they all seem to agree on is that Rivera's is the best cut fastball they've ever seen and maybe the best pitch anyone's ever seen.
And Rivera isn't the only one throwing it. Many pitchers have taken to the pitch they call a "cutter" because the ball is held with a grip similar to a regular four-seam fastball and can get late, cutting action that bores in on a hitter's hands simply with a flick of the wrist. Not everyone can do it, of course. And no one can do it like Rivera. He's tried to teach it to teammates and it's never worked. But it's a mainstay in today's game.
"You're just trying to miss barrels, and whether it may be a two-seam fastball that runs a little bit, a cutter, if it moves three or four inches and you get off the barrel, that's the difference between a home run and a fly ball," Nationals pitcher Dan Haren said while with the Angels.
"It's all about getting them to mis-hit the ball. ... A cutter is a good pitch, because you can throw it for a strike; you can strike a guy out with it. It's kind of different."
Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher worked with Haren for a few years and saw a guy who used to throw mid- to upper-90s fastballs lose a few ticks off the heater as he got older. He needed to adapt and evolve, and he found something that worked.
"He's a good example of a guy who retooled himself," Butcher says. "When he first came to the big leagues, he was fastball, split, curveball. Now it's cutter-mania."
Butcher says all the hype about the cutter being a new pitch is silly. He says he remembers throwing it himself in 1989 as a starter for Double-A Midland in the Angels organization. He saw former reliever Mike Jackson revive a career with it.
He also remembers watching Greg Maddux, then with the Cubs, throwing cutters for the first time in a game against his Angels team in Spring Training in the early 1990s and sawing off one bat after another. He ran into Maddux that evening at a restaurant and the two got to talking. Maddux said he was trying out the pitch and was frustrated with how difficult it was to throw it.
"He was jamming guys and getting mis-hits, and all he could tell me was how much he didn't like the pitch," Butcher says. "I told him, 'I can tell you right now, our guys didn't like it much, either.'"
Chipper Jones has been quoted as calling the cutter "the bane of my existence."
Brewers slugger Corey Hart says it's "not a fun pitch at all."
But on the flip side, if you're a pitcher, it's almost always a good thing, as long as you can throw it for strikes and get those funky swings and poorly hit balls.
"When a guy learns how to throw a cutter, it's usually because he had a hard time getting over a secondary pitch," Butcher says. "They need something to get a look from a hitter to get back into a count. It's easier to command. For me, it was simple.
"It was the easiest pitch I could throw, and it gave me confidence."
Not everyone throws it. A recent conversation with Mariners pitchers Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan revealed that, in their estimation, not a single pitcher on the Seattle staff throws one. Not even the great Felix Hernandez, who throws at least five pitches.
When asked for confirmation of that claim, Hernandez obliged. "No cutter, man," he said with a proud smile. "My four-seam fastball ... that's my cutter."
The King has a good point, because the grip and pronation of Hernandez's wrist when he's throwing a regular fastball puts serious movement on it.
And maybe that's what makes a cutter difficult to define. For example, former big league pitcher and current MLB Network host Al Leiter has said he had to find out from teammates that he was throwing a cutter because he was convinced it was a slider.
Nevertheless, Leiter liked the results, and so do many pitchers.
"Because it's not your best velocity, it looks hittable in the sense of speed," Leiter says. "You've got a guy throwing 92-93 [mph], he'll throw a cutter from 88-91 with some cut, and that's the difference between squaring it up on the barrel or not."
Butcher says he expects that the cutter will continue to grow in popularity, even in the Little League ranks, where dads and kids will emulate their Major League heroes and try to reproduce their best pitches.
"When you've got a guy like Mariano throwing a pitch and doing what he's done, that's a pretty good advertisement for that pitch," Butcher says.
"That might be all you need."