A Dialogue on the Urgent Matter of Jharel Cotton’s Cutter

In light of Oakland right-hander Jharel Cotton’s minor-league success, his major-league success (which includes a 1.50 ERA over three starts) isn’t an entirely surprising development. More surprising, perhaps, is how he’s achieved that success — less by means of his celebrated changeup and more by means of his barely-ever-mentioned-once cut fastball.

Curious as to what might explain this development — and curious, generally, about what constitutes a successful cutter — I contacted pitch-type enthusiast and mostly tolerable colleague Eno Sarris. What follows is the product of our correspondence. The author’s questions appear in bold, Sarris’s in normally weighted typeface.


Because I’m not the foremost expert on anything, Eno — except perhaps the length and breadth of my own personal weakness — I’m also not an expert on Jharel Cotton. That said, it’s probably also fair to say that I’ve followed him with some interest. He finished atop the Fringe Five leaderboard last year (tied with Matt Boyd and Sherman Johnson). He finished among the top 10 on that same arbitrarily calculated scoreboard this year, too.

Anyway, as the sort of person who’s followed Cotton with some interest, I’ve been aware that the changeup is impressive. That’s what the scouting reports have suggested and also what the video evidence has suggested. Now that Cotton’s in the majors, it’s what the PITCHf/x data suggests, too. Indeed, there are hardly any changeups like it. But the change has also produced only a 16% whiff rate — which, if I’m not mistaken, that’s pretty close to average.

The changeup.

His cutter, meanwhile — with which offering I was decidedly less well acquainted — his cutter has earned a swing and miss 22% of the time. That’s higher — and seems high, in general. Like, relative to the league.

The cutter.

So, some questions. How does that 22% figure compare to other starters? What’s league average? And, if you know, what generally leads to whiffs on the cutter? Velocity? Velocity separation? Horizontal or vertical movement? Something I’m omitting entirely from this series of flailing questions?

The cutter is a really, really hard pitch to study. The problem is that there are probably as many as three sub-types of cutters. There’s the true cut fastball, like Mariano Rivera threw, which is about 1 or 2 mph slower than the fastball. Then there’s the baby slider, like the one Jon Lester, James Shields, and Adam Wainwright throw. And there might even be a third pitch between the cutter and the slider — think Madison Bumgarner — with a name that would make my grandma blush. Well, maybe someone else’s grandma.

In any case, Cotton’s looks like the baby slider version since it’s 4 mph slower than his fastball. And by movement, it’s exactly average with baseball’s right-handed cutters as a monolith. So why is it getting more than twice the whiffs of an average cutter right now?

Difficult to answer. I’d say that the third reason the pitch is so difficult to study is that it is designed to work in tandem with another pitch. It’s supposed to look like a fastball and then it comes in five inches lower and four inches to the left. So later, perhaps after more people have seen the cutter, later it may not get as many whiffs.

But, judging from Cotton’s minor-league strikeout rates, he’s been doing this for a bit. The changeup (judged by whiff rate) has the worst relationship with overall strikeout rate among the various non-fastballs. He’s always needed a good non-changeup to get so many strikeouts, and this might be it.

The degree to which pitches work in tandem is interesting. It’s logical but also, from what I gather, difficult to identify objectively. Each pitcher is his own universe in that way, it seems.

I’m wondering, do you feel like there are any pitches that seem unexceptional on their own but that are super effective because of the context in which they’re thrown (i.e. in the context of a pitcher’s entire repertoire)? Alternatively, can you think of any pitches that seem like they ought to be effective but just aren’t — perhaps because they lack the proper context?

Oh, for sure. Off of the top of my head, I just wrote about Kenta Maeda’s curve. I think it’s not a good pitch. It gets terrible whiff rates. It’s slow. It doesn’t even get ground balls. I think people can spot it a mile away. But because his slider is so good, and his command, when people see that curve coming, they don’t swing (only five people get fewer swings) and he pops it into the zone for a called strike (only four people do so more often).

And then there’s the Anthony DeSclafani changeup. It gets more drop and fade than average, but he doesn’t trust it, and he might telegraph it with his arm speed. In any case, his career took off when he more or less ditched it and learned a knuckle curve instead.

Sometimes things only work as a surprise, and they’re not necessarily any better if you throw it more. If Maeda threw that curve too often, I think it would get spanked.

This seems like it probably poses a real challenge where talent evaluation is concerned — the idea that what looks like a plus pitch, if it lacks the proper context, might not play like one. Or, alternatively, that a seemingly banal repertoire might lead to excellent results, simply because all the pitches complement each other well.

Here’s a question that is maybe unfairly difficult to ask: what do you think is the most banal but also effective repertoire? I recognize that banality is probably subject to interpretation. But also that’s why the question is unfair.

Maybe Kyle Hendricks? Kyle Hendricks.

Even if you parse out his two changeups and look at them separately, and compare the “fade” changeup to righty changeups, and the “cut” change to righty sliders, neither has plus movement compared to the league. His curve is boring and slow. His four-seam is straight, no rise. His sinker is slow and has less fade than usual, even if it has good sink. His cutter goes 86 and gets worse than average results.

Kyle Hendricks has plus command, especially to the glove side, which is tough for righties. Collin McHugh brought him up just this week, talking about how the mechanics of the normal righty takes you straight to the plate on the arm side. Somehow Hendricks has plus command to the inside part of the plate against lefties and he eats them up inside there with front-door sinkers and high-and-tight four-seamers.

I have to eat dinner. I invite you to make one last comment, though — preferably involving Jharel Cotton, the reason for this brief conversation in the first place.

I see homers in Cotton’s line, at least from time to time. They can come from poor velocity, but Cotton is average for a righty there. They can come from youth, from falling into easy-to-spot patterns. Homers can also come from poor command. I’m not good enough to know which it is for him, which means I love Cotton for now.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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7 years ago

If there was such a thing as a banality/command score (like Bill James’ old power/speed score), the top three all-time might be products of the Cubs system:

3. Hendricks
2. Maddux
1. Moyer

7 years ago
Reply to  tz

People complain that Kyle Hendricks is overrated because he has one of the largest ERA-FIP discrepancies but what they often fail to recognize is that his FIP is 6th in MLB among starters. So, he’s helped by the Cubs’ defense? Great. He’s also a darn good pitcher.