Josiah Gray Threw Five Cutters

Josiah Gray
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday afternoon, Washington’s Josiah Gray pitched the first inning of his first spring training game of 2023. He threw nine pitches to mow down the Mets. Five of those pitches were cut fastballs, a new addition to his repertoire. If that doesn’t sound noteworthy to you, maybe you should ask Mark Canha, the player who faced Gray’s first cutter. After the pitch, he stared out at the mound for a long moment.

That is the face of a man who has just seen something he did not expect. Canha struck out (on a cutter), and on his way back to the dugout he stopped to tell Francisco Lindor a little secret. Want to guess what he said?

Gray isn’t the only pitcher with a shiny new cutter. SNY’s broadcast team noted both Gray’s new pitch and the league-wide trend:

Gary Cohen: So the last two pitches, Ronnie, Josiah Gray threw cutters, and I don’t think he’s ever thrown that pitch before.
Ron Darling: No, this is a new pitch for him. And if you notice from yesterday’s game—there’s always themes in spring training—almost every pitcher, yesterday’s game, was working on a cutter.
Keith Hernandez: Mmmm.

They’re not wrong. Pirates starter Mitch Keller dusted off his cutter after mothballing the pitch in 2022. You can read about it, watch him work on it in the offseason, and finally see him throw it in a spring training game. Clarke Schmidt has a new cutter, Matt Brash has a new cutter, Jose Butto has a new cutter, and none of this is new. Pitchers try things out in spring training all the time, and there’s no guarantee that Gray will stick with his cutter. Just in the past two years, plenty of players used a cutter in spring training only to ditch it once the regular season started.

Fleeting Spring Training Cutter Usage
Player Year Spring Training Regular Season
Lucas Gilbreath 2021 21% 0%
Chad Green 2021 5.2% 0%
Patrick Corbin 2021 8.6% 0.3%
Aaron Nola 2021 5.6% 1.5%
Jhoan Duran 2022 10.1% 0%
Jalen Beeks 2022 16.9% 1.2%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

All the same, I think Gray’s cutter in particular is an important development, and I’ll be most curious to see how his turns out. He might not be the perfect candidate for a cutter, but he definitely needs a new weapon. As Ethan Rendon, Elijah Emery, Will Sugar, and Tieran Alexander explained at Prospects Live, cutters can tunnel with both fastballs and sliders. Even if the cutter itself isn’t particularly effective, it can allow those pitches to play up. Take a look at Gray’s pitch movement chart.

A cutter that averaged 20 inches of drop and four inches of break would slot nicely into Gray’s repertoire, giving batters two pitches to worry about whenever they saw his fastball or his slider. On Saturday, Gray’s cutter averaged to 25.2 inches and one inch, respectively — good enough for a first effort. The pitch itself averaged 90 mph, which would again allow it to overlap with both the fastball and the slider.

The Nationals also hope that Gray will be able to use the cutter against lefties in order to balance out his lopsided platoon splits. So at least on paper, it seems like it could help his fastball and slider play up. When batters see what looks like a fastball, they will now have to at least consider the possibility that it’s actually a cutter. That’s important because Gray’s fastball is, well, extremely bad.

I’ll try to keep this paragraph brief. Among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings, Gray’s fastball is dead last on our pitch value leaderboard. His four-seamer features above-average velocity, but he doesn’t control it well. It doesn’t generate enough chases or whiffs, and it gets hit hard and in the air: It has a 45% hard-hit rate, an average exit velocity of 91.3 mph, and an average launch angle of 28 degrees. Gray’s four-seamer had a 20.9% chase rate, compared to the league average of 24.5%. If the cutter does help create some more chase, it should earn him more whiffs and limit some of that hard contact.

Lamar Gibson noted over at Pitcher List that Gray tends to lean heavily on the four-seamer both with no count and when behind in the count. In other words, he throws a lot of fastballs in obvious fastball counts. There’s some gain to be had if he is willing to reduce his fastball usage even more, because his curveball grades out as solid, and his slider is excellent. It was worth 6.4 runs in 2022, good for 21st on our pitch value leaderboard. Last fall, Gray explained his curveball and slider grips in fascinating detail in Behind the Seams, the Nationals’ YouTube series. His fastball literally never comes up once in the video’s 10-minute runtime.

I mentioned earlier that Gray isn’t a perfect candidate for a cutter. When we talk about using a cutter to tunnel with a fastball and a slider, it’s usually with the hope of increasing the chase rate on the slider. Gray, Schmidt, and Keller all profile differently, and I’ll be interested to see who benefits the most from the addition of a cutter. Keller throws an average four-seamer, an underperforming slider, and an excellent sweeper; it’s easy to see why he hopes a cutter might slot in between the fastball and slider, elevating both. Schmidt’s issues are more similar to Gray’s, in that he throws a good slider, an excellent curve, and a poor four-seamer.

Gray is the real outlier. He really only needs help with the fastball. First of all, his slider is already excellent. It has a 34.4% chase rate, just above the league average of 32.7%, and a whiff rate of 38% in 2022, well over double the league average. He has a low release point and very different spin characteristics. His four-seamer has 100% active spin and above-average movement both vertically and horizontally, but his breaking balls have tons of gyro spin. There’s a lot less separation in his pitch movement chart than in Gray’s or Keller’s. His slider has below-average vertical and horizontal break, which is to say that it already has some cutter traits. The overlap in horizontal movement between his slider and his fastball could be one of the reasons for the slider’s success, which might mean the addition of the cutter doesn’t change all that much. Or it could just mean that the cutter needs a movement profile that’s much more similar to his four-seamer than the version he showcased on Saturday.

All the same, if Gray hopes to improve on his 5.02 ERA and 5.86 FIP, he’ll need to try something. He has other issues that have nothing to do with tunneling. He’s been working on his hip mobility, hoping to create a more consistent landing spot that’s more in line with the catcher and also introduce some deception into his delivery. “That helped him out a lot,” manager Dave Martinez told the Washington Post. “He says he feels a lot more mobile and agile so he doesn’t have to get so rotational. His direction is way better.” I’ve watched side-by-side video of Gray’s delivery on Saturday and his delivery from last year, and I just can’t see that he’s doing anything different with his hips.

Maybe you’ll see something that I didn’t, but to my eyes Gray’s delivery is still much more rotational than it is downhill, and he still lands with his foot pointed off to the left. That contributes to his short stride and the resultant gap between his actual and perceived velocity. Per Baseball Savant, 657 pitchers threw at least 100 four-seamers in 2022. Here’s where Gray ranks.

Josiah Gray – Extension
Velocity Extension Perceived Velocity wOBA
Measure 94.4 mph 5.6 feet 92.7 mph .479
Rank 268 632 435 582
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The good news is that Gray certainly seems open to tinkering. His 15-game rolling averages may show someone who’s losing faith in their four-seamer, but they also tell the tale of someone who is willing to try new things and put in the work.

At the start of 2022, he was throwing the four-seamer 50% of the time, but by the end of the season it was down to 35%. He tried out a few sinkers in June, then added the pitch to his repertoire for good in September, using it roughly 17% of the time over his last three starts, largely to righties. Over that very short sample, the sinker wasn’t great, but it was still much better than the four-seamer. At the same time, Gray drastically increased his slider usage against left-handed batters, going against his usual game plan of sliders to righties and curves to lefties.

Gray has more than enough new wrinkles to work on this season: the cutter, the slider to lefties, the sinker, the possible reintroduction of a changeup. Barring injury, he’ll get every chance to test his new pitch mix. The Nationals have no plans to contend any time soon, and they didn’t seem to mind letting Gray start 28 games and lead the league in both home runs and walks in 2022.

The truth is that Gray’s cutter doesn’t need to be a great pitch, or even a good pitch. If it’s nothing special but its presence improves his fastball, that’s a huge win. But that’s not the bar it needs to clear. Even if Gray simply swaps out some horrendously bad fastballs with a cutter that’s merely a normal amount of bad, that would still represent a pretty big swing. Besides, if it doesn’t work, Gray seems like the kind of player who will keep working to find something that does.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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1 year ago

I can see a little bit with his hip. He’s moving his landing leg out a touch farther and seems to land slightly more upright. That makes his release point a touch more stable. It looks more obvious if you look at his upper body. Small changes, but if it helps it helps. I remember having to adjust my turn slightly in high school because I was almost sidearm in terms of release point, which made my curveball behave weirdly. My delivery wasn’t much different, but my timing was.

Last edited 1 year ago by EonADS
Petey Bienelmember
1 year ago
Reply to  EonADS

FWIW, what the Nats are supposed to be trying to correct is to have him finish “more in line with the catcher” and avoid him “miss his location significantly east and west of the plate because he wasn’t consistent with his mechanics” according to a write up by Andrew Golden in the Washington Post.
If you look at the side by side, it looked like there’s a different spot where he finishes with his arm, with last year definitely more away from the body. I am not enough of a mechanics guy to know if that has something to do with his hip.

Last edited 1 year ago by Petey Bienel
1 year ago
Reply to  Petey Bienel

It does, because instead of trying cock his hip and shoulder outward and then pull forward on his right side as he delivers, he softens his overall body motion, which makes it less jerky. Probably the same reason that he looks more balanced and stable in the left side image. I know the right side camera is slightly lower, but he’s a good four inches higher in his crouch now than he is in that image.

That’s a good catch, I hadn’t seen that at first.

Last edited 1 year ago by EonADS