Is The Cutter The Twins' New Market Inefficiency?

USA TODAY Sports

The Twins have brought in a lot of pitchers over the past two years that throw a cutter. Is this a new pitching strategy or purely a coincidence?

Note: I spent my Memorial Day weekend learning how to make animated GIFs, and now that I've succeeded, I can start creating my own instead of being a hack and stealing others from the Internet. To make the GIF play, just hover your mouse icon over the GIF.

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When you're thinking about baseball and someone mentions the "cutter," it's not surprising if one thinks of the man that threw the pitch better than anyone else, and that's Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. He has built his entire career by throwing that pitch 95% of the time (he does mix in a 4-seam fastball every now and then) and the amazing part is that Rivera doesn't even do anything unique with the ball when he throws it. There's no special grip, he just uses a 4-seam grip and the ball gets an extraordinary cutting action off his fingers.

In case you didn't know, the cut fastball, or cutter as it's most commonly known today, is a pitch designed to move only a couple inches. It's supposed to look like a normal straight fastball, but then it moves just enough at the end to avoid the sweet spot on the bat. For a righthanded pitcher, it moves in towards lefthanded hitters and away from righties. Because of the late movement, the batter often swings at a pitch expecting to drive it to the outfield, but instead ends up hitting a weak grounder or fly ball. Those outcomes are usually because the ball was hit off the end of the bat or up the handle, which can sometimes lead to a broken bat as well.

Admittedly this is anecdotal evidence, but despite that kind of description of the pitch, it felt that the Twins shied away from pitchers that threw cutters while I was growing up. Maybe it was a philosophical reason; after all, the Twins have typically avoided pitchers with split-fingered fastballs as well, presumably to injury concerns.* It also could have been that prior to the PITCHf/x era (starting around 2007, though FanGraphs has individual pitch data going back to 2002) we had no idea whether that breaking pitch was a slider or cutter. We had to just take the word of the announcer on TV or radio that may or may not have talked with the pitcher about his repertoire. Regardless, from my memory I can really only think of one Twins pitcher from the aughts that threw a cutter and that was Nick Blackburn.

* Similar to the splitter with finger injuries, there's a theory that cutters lead to more arm injuries (this Hardball Times articlehints at that conclusion).

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When Blackburn completed his first full season in the majors in 2008, he had about a 2:1 ratio of 2-seam fastballs to cutters, and he threw those pitches a combined 75% of the time. As his career progressed, the combined percentage of 2-seamers and cutters always stayed around 70-75%, but that 2:1 ratio became 3:1 the very next year, and in his 3rd season, it was 6:1. I don't know whether to think that the Twins told Blackburn to stop throwing cutters due to the injury risk, or if it was a case that he knew the pitch was becoming ineffective. Without conducting interviews with Rick Anderson, Terry Ryan/Bill Smith, Ron Gardenhire, etc., we can only speculate about the former. But with the latter, we do see with FanGraphs' pitch values that Blackburn's cutter in 2008 was above average, 2009 saw it become slightly above average, and then it was terrible from 2010-2012.

After Blackburn, there wasn't really anyone else that comes to mind that threw a cutter, at least until two seasons ago. Starting there, it appears as though there has been a shift in the types of pitchers the Twins have employed. The whole "pitch to contact" philosophy, no matter how much the Twins deny teaching, relies on creating weak contact. I don't think any pitch is associated with weak contact any more than the cutter.

Thus, I will show you all of the Twins pitchers from the last season and a quarter that have been confirmed as throwing a cutter, and then I'll finish with those that feature a fastball that is not technically a cutter, but definitely has cutting movement. Since PITCHf/x classification is not 100% correct, I will include a linked article that proves that the pitcher is indeed throwing a cutter and not a slider, along with the PITCHf/x data that compares the pitch to that pitcher's main fastball. Just an FYI, all PITCHf/x graphs are showing the pitch movement as if there was no gravity.

Kevin Correia

Proof of cutter: Game recap from 1500 ESPN

Correia was one of the starting pitchers brought in to shore up the rotation this offseason, and though his signing was underwhelming, he's actually been pretty solid thus far. PITCHf/x actually shows Correia's cutter as being a slider, but by looking at the difference (or lack thereof) in velocity between his "slider" and fastball, it's pretty clear that the classified slider is actually the cutter. Another clue is the lack of vertical drop for the cutter, as sliders typically have more downward movement.

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Further proof is shown here, with Correia striking out Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos with the cutter. While a slider typically has more downward movement and is thrown in the low- to mid-80s, we see this pitch just gradually move towards the outside corner, and it's thrown a bit harder at 87 MPH.

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Correia throws his cutter the most out of his 5 pitches, although FanGraphs rates it as slightly below average according to their Pitch Values. That hasn't stopped him from being the most reliable starter in the Twins rotation thus far this season.

Mike Pelfrey

Proof of cutter: 2011 MLB.com article where Pelfrey acknowledges learning the pitch

Pelfrey is trying to prove that he's fully healthy after becoming the fastest pitcher to return from Tommy John surgery, as he missed less than a year. However, his stats haven't been encouraging as his fastball is slower than it's ever been in his career and his ERA is near 7. Although his home run rate is just around average compared to the MLB average, he's been giving out hits left and right which has led to his elevated ERA. He doesn't strike out many hitters, and the main reason is because he throws his sinker significantly more than any other pitch. In fact, it's almost a 7:1 ratio of pitches between his sinker and his #2 pitch, the cutter, which you can see when comparing the clusters of pitches below.

Pelfrey_medium

Yes, it's called a slider once again, but just like Correia, this pitch does not break downwards as much as a normal slider would. FanGraphs says that his cutter is solidly below-average, so perhaps it's a good thing that he only throws it 13% of the time this year. In fact, it really appears as though Pelfrey uses the cutter as a different look that is designed to make his sinker more effective, as it will break in the opposite direction.

Here is a clip of Pelfrey using the cutter to strike out Asdrubal Cabrera. This pitch actually breaks further down than a typical cutter would, but the additional movement is also likely why Cabrera swung through the pitch. Again, we see the pitch is thrown fairly hard at 86 MPH.

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Vance Worley

Proof of cutter: Q&A post with Worley at FanGraphs

Worley is interesting in that in his words, he throws a fastball that sometimes has cutting movement and a cutter with slider movement. Indeed, if we look at PITCHf/x data, what Worley says is absolutely true.

Worley_medium

There is an odd cluster of fastballs above the larger clusters, but I'm attributing that to a PITCHf/x camera being off in one of Worley's starts and that he didn't figure out a way to throw a "rise" ball for one and only one appearance this year. Anyway, Worley is also a bit different than the other two starters in that his cutter and fastball velocity difference is significantly more than the others. It may just be how he grips the ball or how it comes off his fingers, but regardless, FanGraphs says it has not been helpful as it rates his cutter as below-average.*

* The data I'm looking at is the slider, just like the PITCHf/x data classifies his slider. The fastball with cutter movement is rated as above-average.

I'll actually include two GIFs for Worley. The first one is actually his fastball but you can see how it has cutter movement, inducing a double play off the bat of Dustin Pedroia. The second is his true cutter that also induced a double play, this time from Will Middlebrooks.

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Pedro Hernandez

Proof of cutter: South Side Sox article that includes a tweet where coach Buddy Bell acknowledges the pitch

Finally we have a lefty appear on this list, and it's once again a pitcher that debuted with the Twins this year. Hernandez was actually first acquired back in 2012 in the Francisco Liriano trade, and really the only thing he had in common with Liriano was that he was lefthanded. He is more of a soft-tosser and will rely on changing speeds, and thus that is probably why he includes the cutter. South Side Sox called it more of a "slutter" which sounds filthy and not in the manner you normally expect when discussing pitches, but that sounds an awful lot like what we could have called Vance Worley's cutter. Hey, Bert Blyleven would probably embrace the name.

Hernandez_medium

Again like Worley, Hernandez throws his cutter considerably softer than his fastball. Unlike Worley, though, he has shown a lot of success with the pitch according to FanGraphs, making him the first pitcher on this list to actually have consistent success with it. He also takes advantage of it by making it his second favorite pitch (21.6%) behind his 4-seam fastball (43.4%).

Here is a clip of Hernandez throwing his cutter to strike out A.J. Pierzynski during his first major league victory.

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Casey Fien

Proof of cutter: Some "MLive" article from Michigan, but it quotes Jim Leyland as saying Fien throws a cutter

We now transition from our first lefthander on this list to the first reliever in Casey Fien. While some of these pitchers make it confusing as their pitch is classified as either a cutter or slider, Fien makes it easier as he actually throws both.

Fien_medium

Er, it was easier until PITCHf/x went a little crazy last night and decided that Fien has perfected a change-up that breaks into the hands of lefties. Truthfully that's actually his cutter, and then you can see the little cluster below that has his true slider (mislabeled as a curveball). Fien loves his cutter more than any Twins pitcher, as he throws it over 40% of the time, which is nearly as often as he throws his 4-seamer. Fien struggled with the pitch in the past according to FanGraphs, but this year he's had a ton of success and that has evened it out to being an average pitch for his career.

Here is a clip of Fien striking out Eric Hosmer from last season. I know it says his cutter was thrown at 90 MPH, but the truth is that Kansas City notoriously has a hot radar gun, and that's evidenced by Fien "throwing" mid-90s gas throughout the video. It was more likely that he was throwing 91-92 instead of 94-95, and that cutter was probably more an 86-87 instead of 90. Also, it's unfortunate that I had to use the KC camera angle, because it kind of hides the pitch boring into Hosmer.

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Josh Roenicke

Proof of cutter: This scouting report of Roenicke from Red Legs Baseball, which is VERY in-depth

We now look at another reliever in Josh Roenicke. Although PITCHf/x does say he has a cutter, I was a bit doubtful as the pitch has so much movement and so little velocity that it seemed like it was a slider. However, that scouting report I've linked above put my doubts to rest as it confirmed exactly what I was seeing. Roenicke used to throw harder when he was younger, but his fastball and cutter have lost quite a bit of velocity since then and now we see a 81-85 MPH cutter instead of the 87-89 MPH from when he was drafted.

Roenicke_medium

So far Roenicke has had about a 2:1 ratio of fastballs to cutters, and FanGraphs has called it an above-average pitch for him thus far, although I should mention that PITCHf/x has only acknowledged that the pitch existed since 2012. He significantly outperformed his FIP last year (his first full season in the majors) and is doing so again this year, and perhaps that can be attributed to inducing weak contact with that cutter.

Here is Roenicke getting a weak grounder with the cutter against Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

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Samuel Deduno

We have completed the pitchers that are guaranteed as throwing cutters, and now we finish with two pitchers that throw, for lack of a better term, an "accidental cutter." Now, these will hopefully be less tasteless than that new Brad Paisley song, but I'm not offering any guarantees.

We are all likely aware of Deduno's "crazy fastball," a pitch that one time will feature heavy sink, but then will also sometimes start cutting across the plate. The oddity is that Deduno has no idea how to create the differing movements on purpose, which probably is a contributing factor to his lack of control.

Deduno_medium

One of the benefits of the "accidental cutter" is that it can be thrown at a much similar velocity as the fastball. Indeed, that is exactly what we see with Deduno as the "cutter" is only 1 MPH slower than his fastball. That lack of velocity change theoretically makes each pitch harder to hit as you would have trouble distinguishing the two apart. However, you could always guess the sinker though as PITCHf/x says Deduno throws it nearly three times as often. Oh great, now I'm talking as if Deduno knows where his fastball is going.

Behold, it's our first documented broken bat, and it's not even on a real cutter! Here, Deduno saws off Miguel Cabrera from last season, but Miggy was still strong enough to fly out to left field. I'll admit the movement is a little tough to see (this pitch looks straighter than most of the cutters in this article), but I think you can notice that the ball moves just a little away from Miggy when he swings, and also the velocity suggests this was not Deduno's sinker.

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Scott Diamond

Now, Diamond was a pitcher that always confused me with his repertoire. Since he throws with an over-the-top delivery, it's understandable when PITCHf/x says his fastball is extremely straight (as you will see in the picture below). However, upon watching him pitch on TV, it was clear that his fastball would sometimes have some cutting action. Secondly, Dick 'n' Bert would always say he threw a curveball, but with the significant velocity and lack of movement on the pitch, it seemed like it was more of a slider. Fortunately, the fine writers at FanGraphs conducted an interview with Diamond earlier this season and he acknowledged that he did not throw a cutter on purpose, and he also threw a curveball that simply did not have a lot of break.

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This is the one graph where I did not highlight the "cutter" versus the fastball because, well, look at the graph. There's a huge cluster of fastballs that appears to be centered at (1, 10) rather than two clusters like we saw with Vance Worley and Sam Deduno. Nevertheless, even with the significant amount of "rise" on Diamond's fastball, he's been able to combine locating it in the bottom of the strike zone with that slight cutting action to create an above-average number of ground balls, which is highly unusual for a pitcher that does not feature a 2-seam fastball.

Sadly, we have come to the end of our GIFs, and this final one shows that all Dustin Pedroia does against Twins cutters is ground into double plays. Okay, that's probably not actually true, but that is still exactly what happens here against Scott Diamond.

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Conclusion

Throughout this post, I've highlighted 8 Twins pitchers that all feature either a cutter or a fastball that occasionally has cutting movement. Since all of these pitchers joined the organization in 2011 or later (and Diamond is the only pitcher prior to 2012), it sure seems like the Twins have suddenly emphasized pitchers that can throw something that is designed to create weak contact.

However, there are two counterpoints to this theory, and their names are May and Meyer, as in Trevor May and Alex Meyer. Neither pitcher is on record as throwing a cutter, and that would seem to hint that perhaps I'm merely making a mountain out of a molehill here. In which case, I've just written nearly 3000 words and created 9 animated GIFs and probably just used up 20 minutes of your day. While I am currently unable to get access to the Twins front office and coaching staff to ask if this is indeed a new focus, I can still look at the new pitchers that will inevitably join the squad over the next year or two. If the majority do throw a cutter, then it's safe to say that this hypothesis is correct. If not, well clearly we just chalk this whole thing up to a correlation.

I do hope this is just a coincidence, however, because of the lack of success that the team has seen with their pitching staff. This season they have a 4.61 ERA. Last year it was 4.77, and 2011's Twins had a collective 4.60 ERA. If the influx of cutters to the team was indeed by design, well, it hasn't worked so far. Thus, I wish that we can pin the struggles on something else and that I'm merely reading a little too much into a silly correlation.

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