“Why don’t you take a look at the chart with the average against cutters in the big leagues, batting average against and then come back and tell me that that’s a great pitch,” Duquette said.
In an interview with Steve Melewski that is destined to provide content for weeks, Dan Duquette outlined the Orioles’ philosophy when it comes to the cut fastball. In essence, the pitch won’t be taught in their minor league organization. “We don’t like it as a pitch,” the Baltimore GM said.
The interview was full of controversial statements. For one, Duquette asked incredulously if any good pitcher has dominated in the big leagues using a cutter. He dismissed Mariano Rivera — “that’s a fastball” — so we may have a problem of definition. By the BIS pitch type percentage leaderboards housed here, there are plenty of excellent pitchers that have used the cutter: Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, James Shields, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, David Price, Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright all show up on the first page, meaning they use the pitch often. Some dude named Roy Halladay throws the cutter almost a quarter of the time according to PITCHf/x. Unless he’s going to dismiss all of these as fastballs — in which case we’d have to ask what a cutter actually is — that statement seems demonstrably wrong.
His assertion that the batting average allowed on the cutter means it’s a bad pitch, that one should be easy enough to unpack. First of all, here are the numbers for batting average and slugging percentage on balls after contact for each pitch type so far this year. (Using this year alone helps us avoid any change in pitch-type classification systems.)
The batting average on balls after contact for the cutter seem in line with the slider and curveball, while the two-seam and four-seam fastball allow more successful outcomes for the batter. There’s little difference in the non-four-seam slugging percentages. Since the cutter and the breaking pitches all get more ground balls than the four-seamer, that’s not surprising. If Duquette’s chart includes swinging strikes, he may have lower batting averages for the breaking pitches than the cutter — according to Harry Pavlidis’ excellent pitch-type benchmarks, the cut fastball has a worse whiff rate than any pitch listed here except the four-seamer.
But that’s not the point of the pitch. Look at the cut fastball, and you realize that it’s a pitch that’s used like a fastball but has a little different movement and gets a few more ground balls. The balls-to-called strikes ratio on the cut fastball is better than the one you’ll find on breaking pitches, and the ground-ball rate is better than the four-seamer. It’s a tweener. If used properly, it’s useful, and batting average has little to say about it.
Another assertion of his might be the ‘real’ reason that the Orioles are declining to teach to the pitch in the minor leagues. Duquette states that developing the cutter takes away from time spent developing better pitches, but also that throwing the cutter leads to lowered arm strength and less fastball velocity. In an excellent article on Baseball America ($), Ben Badler did find many scouts that agreed with this sentiment. Most agreed with a caveat: if it’s thrown correctly (and has about the same velocity as his four-seam fastball), they think it’s a fine pitch that can help a pitcher iron out platoon issues by giving them a pitch with movement to the glove side. Others are more pessimistic and think it’s “hard on the arm” like the last pitch-du-jour, the split-finger fastball. Testing these ideas is as difficult as classifying the cutter.
No matter what, Badler found that most agree that there isn’t a team that teaches the cutter on an organization-wide basis. Sure, you have pitching coaches — like Don Cooper and Dave Duncan, perhaps — that teach the pitch in the big leagues, and help revive careers for veterans that have had trouble learning a better changeup or curveball. But it doesn’t seem like there are many, if any, teams that teach the cutter in the minors. So maybe this is all a brouhaha about nothing.
Except that the Orioles have a prospect named Dylan Bundy who throws his fastball in the upper nineties and thrived with a cut fastball as part of his arsenal in high school. The Orioles’ forbidding him from throwing the pitch may be taking this philosophy too far. After all, each pitcher is different, and if Bundy wasn’t having trouble with arm strength and used a fine-looking cutter, telling him to stop using it seems to be folly.
In the end, Duquette’s is a defensible stance, and one that is in the majority when it comes to minor league development. But maybe the Orioles’ GM said a few strange things and used some interesting evidence to back up his beliefs.
Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman for the batting average and slugging percentage on balls in play by pitch type.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.