Grading the Pitches: 2016 MLB Starters’ Cutters and Splitters

Changeup: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Curveball: AL Starters / NL Starters.

Our series focusing on the evaluation of 2016 ERA-qualifying starters’ pitches grinds on. Today, we kill a couple of birds with one stone, with a look at the best cutters and splitters from both leagues.

For those who haven’t seen the earlier installments, we’re giving letter grades to the individual pitches, based on a 50-50 split between bat-missing ability and contact-management performance. League-average-range performance in both component measures would receive a “B” grade. If that seems high to you, bear in mind that these are already better-than-average pitchers, simply by virtue of their ability to compile the 162 innings necessary for qualification while dodging the not insignificant hurdles of injury and ineffectiveness.

Let’s start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2016 PItch Grades – MLB Qualifiers’ Cutters/Splitters
Lackey 97 23.1% A 23.0%
Bauer 54 10.1% B+ 16.7%
Iwakuma – S 77 15.8% B+ 17.8%
Gausman – S 89 22.0% B+ 21.3%
Wainwright 85 9.5% B+ 29.9%
McHugh 78 8.0% B+ 28.5%
Stroman 92 12.3% B+ 19.5%
Tanaka – S 82 14.6% B 29.6%
Hendricks 78 6.7% B 16.0%
Fister 76 6.9% B 13.1%
Samardzija 91 10.6% B 19.9%
Leake 96 8.2% B 17.4%
Hamels 99 11.9% B 12.8%
Keuchel 100 10.0% B 11.5%
Lester 108 13.6% B 16.5%
Price 114 9.6% B 19.7%
Graveman 119 13.5% B 17.0%
Cueto 93 4.2% C+ 16.0%
Fiers 96 5.9% C+ 12.9%
Tanaka 108 5.2% C+ 9.3%
Davies 108 7.6% C+ 11.7%
Estrada 109 6.7% C+ 22.0%
Tomlin 120 8.7% C+ 38.2%
Smyly 137 10.5% C+ 16.0%
Odorizzi – S 94 10.0% C 19.2%
Samardzija-S 130 13.1% C 9.1%

The first column contains each pitcher’s pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score. Here’s some brief background for those of you unfamiliar with that concept. MLB average production was applied to each ball in play based on its exit-speed/launch-angle combination. Total production of all BIP was then scaled to 100. Below 100 is good; above 100, not so much.

The second column includes each pitcher’s pitch-specific swing-and-miss rate. The last column indicates the pitch’s usage as a percentage of their overall pitch count.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The assessment of each letter grade was a somewhat subjective exercise. With “B” considered league average, I estimated each color-coding bucket to represent a half-grade move above or below average. The final letter grade involved splitting some hairs very tightly in some cases.

The combination of two distinct pitches here might seem odd. Effectively, though, these are “leftover” pitches. We’ve already looked at curveballs and changeups. Both of those pitch types are utilized by a plurality of starters. Meanwhile, only 32 ERA qualifiers threw a single cutter last season; only six threw a single splitter. To qualify for the list above, a pitcher had to yield 50 batted balls with a given pitch. As a result, I’ve decided to combine them in a single post.

The combination of the two does create one minor complication that requires a brief explanation. The color-coding is based upon the averages/standard deviations for that pitch type in each league. For instance, it might look a little odd that Jake Odorizzi‘s splitter’s 94 Adjusted Contact Score is shaded orange, while Johnny Cueto’s cutter’s 93 Adjusted Contact Score isn’t shaded at all, but once you consider that the AL average splitter Adjusted Contact Score of 85.5 was far better than the NL average cutter mark of 94.5, it makes more sense.

The cutter is a much more neutral pitch than the curve and changeup, which we reviewed in earlier installments of this series. Its 9.8% whiff rate exceeds that of only four- and two-seam fastballs and sinkers, and it rates as only a slightly above-average contact-management pitch. (See NL average Adjusted Contact Score above, AL average was 100.2.) The splitter, on the other hand, had an average whiff rate (among ERA qualifiers) of 15.4%, second only to the slider, and was a marginally better contact management pitch than the cutter.

We’re not going to go into great detail about the individual offerings thrown by all of the pitchers listed above, but let’s do so with those who earned grades of B+ and above.

Grade A – John Lackey, Cubs
There was an awful lot of good fortune in Lackey’s 2016 performance. While rotation mates Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Jon Lester combined their own contact-management strengths with the considerable talents of the glove men behind them, Lackey simply relied on his defense. His one true above-average pitch was his cutter.

His pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score of 97 was fairly ordinary, but his cutter whiff rate was simply off the charts. How much of a contribution did his defense make? Well, his actual (Unadjusted) Contact Scores were way lower than his adjusted marks across all BIP types (2 vs. 76 on flies, 35 vs. 98 on liners, 22 vs. 142 on grounders, 23 vs. 97 overall). Yup, hitters somehow produced only a .187 average and .203 slugging percentage on batted balls against his cutter.

Lackey’s average cutter velocity of 83.4 mph was the second slowest among NL qualifiers, and the pitch had the eighth-most horizontal movement (average of 2.9 inches) and the least vertical movement (0.3 inches) among NL qualifiers. FanGraphs’ pitch values concur regarding the excellence of this pitch: it ranks first overall among MLB qualifiers and first in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Trevor Bauer, Indians
Bauer’s cutter was an elite contact-management pitch: its 54 Adjusted Contact Score was over two full standard deviations better than the AL average. It muted contact on all BIP types (including Adjusted Contact Scores of 60 and 79 on flies and liners). He did yield a very low liner rate on the pitch, and given the volatility of liner rates over time, some upward regression can be expected moving forward.

Unlike Lackey, Bauer throws his cutter pretty hard (average of 88.8 mph, 10th fastest among MLB qualifiers), and both its average horizontal (1.7 inches) and vertical movement (6.0 inches) sat in the middle of the MLB pack.

There’s a large disparity between the results of this analysis and FanGraphs’ pitch values, which rank Bauer’s cutter 20th in overall value and 21st in value per 100 pitches. This likely has a lot to do with his awful luck on grounders (.346 AVG-.346 SLG, 196 Unadjusted Contact Score) hit off of his cutter.

Grade B+ – Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
Now for a quick detour to the two splitters that made our list. Iwakuma’s splitter was an exceptional contact-management pitch (77 Adjusted Contact Score), with an average range whiff rate (15.8%). The splitters on this list induced many more grounders than the cutters on average, though the ones allowed by Iwakuma were struck fairly well (113 Adjusted Contact Score).

Iwakuma’s actual numbers on his splitter were negatively impacted by some bad luck on fly balls (131 Unadjusted vs. 93 Adjusted Contact Score). He threw his splitter at an average of 83.1 mph (second slowest among MLB qualifiers), and it had the highest average horizontal movement (7.8 inches) and the least average vertical movement (1.2 inches). It ranked third both in overall FanGraphs’ splitter pitch value and in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Kevin Gausman, Orioles
Gausman’s splitter had very different strengths and weaknesses than Iwakuma’s. The Oriole righty missed way more bats (22.0% whiff rate), but was in the average range (89 Adjusted Contact Score) with regard to contact management.

There was one common contact-management trait shared with Iwakuma: Gausman’s splitter was also a major grounder inducer. The grounders were hit quite weakly (64 Adjusted Contact Score) to compound the benefit. The relatively few fly balls hit off of Gausman’s splitter, however, were well struck (165 Adjusted Contact Score).

This pitch was thrown at an average of 84.7 mph, tied for third hardest among MLB qualifiers, and both its average horizontal (7.6 inches) and vertical movement (4.3 inches) ranked second. FanGraphs’ pitch values are in agreement with this analysis: the pitch ranked second in both overall and per 100 pitch value.

A quick note here about Masahiro Tanaka, FanGraphs’ splitter pitch-value leader. He very narrowly missed a B+ grade, rating in the average range in both bat-missing and contact management. His heavy usage and Unadjusted Contact Score of 39 drove his FanGraphs value, but the latter was driven by some silly good luck on grounders (21 Unadjusted vs. 100 Adjusted Contact Score).

Grade B+ – Adam Wainwright, Cards
The next two guys on our list threw their cutters an awful lot. Not much went right for Wainwright in 2016, but his cutter represented a bridge to better days. While his whiff rate of 9.5% sat in the average range, he racked up a solid 85 Adjusted Contact Score on the pitch. He yielded more grounders with the pitch than most of the others on this list, and they were not hit very hard (61 Adjusted Contact Score). He also restrained contact on both flies (84) and liners (93) hit off of his cutter.

Wainwright’s cutter wasn’t thrown very hard (average of 85.4 mph, seventh lowest among NL qualifiers), and while its average horizontal movement (2.2 inches) was middle of the pack-ish, its average vertical movement (3.5 inches, fifth least) was well below average.

The combination of high usage and pitch quality enabled the pitch to rank second in overall FanGraphs cutter value and seventh in value per 100 pitches among MLB qualifiers.

Grade B+ – Collin McHugh, Astros
This guy was unlucky across the board contact-management-wise in 2016, especially with his curve and cutter. Adjusted for context, his Adjusted Contact Score of 78 on his cutter was over one full STD better than MLB average, while his whiff rate was in the average range. He yielded a bunch of fly balls on the pitch, but they weren’t hit particularly hard (48 Adjusted Contact Score). He did allow some just-enough homers, however, so his unadjusted mark was a much higher 97.

There were no real distinguishing stylistic characteristics to this pitch: its average velocity (86.7 mph), horizontal (2.7 inches) and vertical (4.6 inches) movement all ranked in the middle of the MLB pack.

McHugh’s bad fortune on fly balls caused him to rank fairly low in FanGraphs’ pitch value rankings (21st overall, 19th in value per 100 pitches). Here’s to hoping we see him back on a major-league mound soon.

Grade B+ – Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays
Stroman’s cutter missed bats (12.3%) and was an average-range contact manager thanks to a very high grounder rate for this pitch type. While he tends to allow very hard grounder contact on his other offerings, Stroman’s Adjusted Grounder Contact Score on his cutter was a solid 95.

Like Bauer, Stroman throws his cutter hard (average of 89.4 mph, seventh hardest among MLB qualifiers), and like Wainwright, he throws it with relatively little movement (average of 1.8 inches horizontal, middle of the pack, 1.8 inches vertical, second least).

FanGraphs’ pitch value rankings are at least somewhat in agreement: his cutter ranked seventh in overall value and 11th in value per 100 pitches.

We’ll continue next week with four-seam fastballs.

We hoped you liked reading Grading the Pitches: 2016 MLB Starters’ Cutters and Splitters by Tony Blengino!

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Michael Augustine

First, nice job with these enjoyable articles. And allow me to preface my below statement by saying I’m not baiting you with contradiction.

Couldn’t at least some of these figures be the result of a pitcher setting up a batter to fail with a particular pitch?
What I mean is, depending on the variation of pitches a batter is seeing, coupled with what they are expecting to see, does that necessarily mean that pitch is as dominant as it appears? Are all pitches in all possible counts created equal?
I could see this being more accurate with (bare with me) batters knowing what type of pitch is coming and being unable to make contact (or impact contact). That would make a very interesting ‘skills’ competition during the All Star break; who gets the most whiffs, with three swings, on a particular pitcher’s curveball.