There might not be two pitches as divisive as the splitter and the cutter. At least, there aren’t two pitches that are banned from development in multiple organizations across baseball like the splitter and the cutter. Dan Haren throws the splitter and the cutter.
That isn’t to say that he hasn’t had to be careful about throwing the two controversial pitches. Many of his adjustments over the course of his career have had to do with how he’s treated them. In fact, their story tells his story, in a way.
Haren ran into some resistance to his repertoire from the first day as a professional. The Cardinals didn’t want him to throw his splitter. That led to a difficult year in Short-A ball, and when they didn’t want him throwing the pitch that next spring, he had to say something: “I told them I needed to throw it because it was my second-best pitch,” Haren said. “They let me throw it a little bit.”
Studying the injury rates on splitfingers is tough. Look at the list of heavy users since 2003 and you get maybe ten to fifteen pitchers. Sure, there’s a whiff of injury about the pitch, and Brandon League did admit to me that his forearm was sore when he first learned the pitch, and Hisashi Iwakuma didn’t throw splitters on his rehab from a finger problem… but a J.J. Putz and a Brandon Morrow don’t say anything definitive about linking the pitch to injuries.
That said, Haren doesn’t like to go to the well too often. “I still don’t throw it much in bullpens between starts, and then I’ll throw 15 in a game, so it’s not like I’m using it that much,” Haren said of the splitfinger. You’ll see him among those league leaders in splitter usage at about ten percent for his career. But that number does only represent about ten splitters a game — he’s averaged 100 pitches per appearance for his career.
He’s not throwing the same splitter that he used to throw. “As my velocity has gone down, I’ve needed to fork it a little more than I used to, to get it to be a little slower, to maintain the gap between that and my four-seamer,” Haren said. “It was almost like a wide two-seam fastball,” he said of his old grip, showing me how he’s had to shove it deeper into his fingers since. We started keeping track of this sort of stuff in 2007, and his splitter averaged 86 (his fastball was 92) and four inches of arm-side run. This year, his split-finger is humming along at 82 (fastball is at 88) with two inches of run and two fewer inches of drop.
What might be most unique about Haren’s splitter is that he can throw it for strikes. Take a look at the zone percentages for the ten most-thrown splitters in the game right now.
|Jorge de la Rosa||31||24.2%||41.9%|
Ask him about this skill and he nods, but adds: “I can. I can pretty much throw anything for strikes in any count.” That is probably the first thing you think of when you think of Dan Haren — after all, his walk rate is top five in the game since 2008.
But it wasn’t always this way. His walk rate hovered around league average after the first two years with the Cardinals. What changed? “It was a trust issue. It started as a belief in myself that I could throw balls in the strike zone and get outs. That’s a hard thing as an up and coming pitcher to believe because they think they have to nibble on the outside of the strike zone,” Haren said of that time. “Now it’s become a completely different thing to me. Now, I can’t afford to walk a guy. I can’t afford the baserunners.”
(The homers he gives up? “It goes hand in hand with not walking guys. Sometimes I think I challenge people too much. I know that was the case last year at the beginning of the year. I even joked with guys that 3-1, I’ll throw a fastball down the middle and close my eyes. Because people pop up in BP,” he said.)
Haren fully admits that he’s trying to make things work with lesser stuff. Enter the cutter: “a response to declining velocity” in his own words.
|Year||FA Velo||FT Velo||FC%|
But there was a little bit more to it. “My fastball was a little flatter in Arizona,” Haren pointed out, and BrooksBaseball has him losing a full inch of vertical drop on the pitch between 2007 and 2008. “My two-seam fastball was running more towards right-handers barrels, so I was looking for something to get off the barrel, so I started using a cutter,” he continued. The cutter helped him… cut (!) power against his sinker drastically in 2008.
But, as with the splitter, there are concerns about the cutter. Dan Duquette banned the pitch from the Orioles organization, and in response I tried to see if there was evidence that the cutter killed fastball velocity. Though I didn’t find evidence, I did run into the idea that there’s a baby slider, which is a little different than your typical cut fastball.
“I throw a baby slider, I grip it more like a slider, almost like a slider and throw it like a fastball instead of gripping it like a cutter and throwing it like a fastball; It’s more of a hard slider,” admitted Haren, before adding that the cutter “absolutely” leads to velocity loss. (He just didn’t care because he was already losing velocity.)
“Even through the course of a game, if I throw too many cutters, I lose feel for my fastball,” Haren continued. In his game against Detroit this year, he threw eight in a row at one point, and then pulled his catcher aside and told him that he needed to throw some four-seamers in the next inning. “If I throw too many cutters, I lose the feel of turning my wrist and I lose a lot of movement and it’s flatter.” The two flattest games of the year for his sinker were in Detroit and the game after.
As you can see from the table above, there are diminishing returns on the cutter. Off a career year (in his opinion) in 2011, the cutter started getting hit hard early last year. “I just have to be more careful with it, it just hasn’t been as good,” Haren said of the pitch. So when he came back from the DL he decided to be more fastball/splitter, and it worked for him.
And really, this is the kind of adjustment he’s had to continually make over his career. As his velocity has declined, and his different pitches have waxed and waned, he’s turned to the splitter and cutter in different doses to find relief. Despite all the questions about those two pitches, he’s found a way to make them work for him.
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.