Mariano Rivera’s cutter is the most dominant pitch in the game today, if not one of the best ever. Baseball’s all-time saves leader has carved out a brilliant career with his signature offering, sawing off a lumberyard’s worth of bats along the way. Hitters know it’s coming, but rarely can they square it up.
When a pitcher possesses such a weapon, it is easy to assume that he can simply rear back and let it go. Unlike a Greg Maddux or a Mike Mussina, he doesn’t need to be a practitioner of the art of pitching. He just blows hitters away with pure stuff.
According to Rivera, it isn’t that simple.
”You need to use your brain to pitch effectively in the big leagues,” explained the future Hall of Famer. “You can’t go out there and do exactly what you want to do without a brain. As you get older, you mature and put your knowledge to work, It’s like when you go to school for the first time. In first grade, you’re not going to know what you know in the sixth or seventh grade. Pitching is just the same. If you don’t learn, you won’t have the success that you could have. I‘ve learned a lot over the years.”
Larry Rothschild, the Yankees’ pitching coach, agrees.
“Mariano is incredibly smart,” said Rothschild. “He’s also obviously incredibly gifted and has a great knack for trusting his ability. That’s why he attacks the strike zone like he does. He has a pitch that, if he throws it right, is going to get any hitter out, at any time. He knows that, and just as importantly, he knows how to pitch. There is the term, ‘he gets it,’ and Mariano gets it. Totally.”
There is no doubt that Rivera relies on his cutter to get hitters out. According to Pitch f/x, 87.3 percent of his 2011 offerings were cutters. In 2010, that number was 84.9, while in 2009 it was 92.9. In typical Mariano fashion, he posted a sub-2.00 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP each year.
Rivera’s 2007 and 2008 seasons present an interesting contrast. The former was statistically among the worst of his career, as he logged a 3.15 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. The latter was arguably his best ever, as he had a 1.40 ERA and a 0.665 WHIP.
What happened from one year to the next? Fortune was likely the biggest factor, as his BABiP dropped precipitously from a career-worst .322 to .218. A cursory look at Pitch f/x indicates that pitch selection might be another — it shows that Rivera threw a markedly lower percentage of cutters in his down year — but that is likely misleading. Pitch f/x data is considered relatively unreliable prior to 2008, and there is no other evidence that he had put his cutter in his back pocket.
There is, however, a second explanation: Mariano Rivera had become a savvier pitcher.
It didn’t all happen overnight, but Rivera is clearly more of a craftsman than he once was. While not specifically citing his 2007 season, Rivera alluded to it playing a major role in his evolution as a pitcher.
“The game alone will teach you a lot.” said Rivera. “I’ve learned from a lot of people, but I’ve especially learned from situations, You won’t have a person who can sit with you and tell you what to do or what not to do. The best teacher is the game itself. When you go through tough times, and tough years, that will teach you. It will guide you in the right way.
“Earlier in my career, I threw the ball and it moved inside to lefties and away from righties. That’s how I thought about it. I didn’t use it as effectively as I could have. Now I vary [the break] and throw it in different areas.”
“When Mariano comes in, you’re going to get the cutter,” added long-time Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. “You know that, but the location of his pitches has changed, and the way he’s pitching in the last couple of years has changed. I think the stuff is still the same, including the 91- and 92-mph cutters, but he makes it bigger and he makes it smaller. He varies the break of his cutter a little more now.
“A lot goes into what he does. He throws a two-seamer too, and we’ve used that for roughly the past 10 years, but what’s really made him better is what he’s been able to do recently.”
Not surprisingly, Rivera enjoys discussing his craft with his teammates. Many of those conversations have come with his catchers and fellow pitchers.
“Mariano and I talk about hitters and how we’re going to approach them,” said Posada. “We discuss what kind of pitches we’re going to throw in certain situations and about what his best pitch is at that time. Depending on the situation, we might vary the pitch, or the location of the pitch.”
“We talk about it most every day during the season,” agreed Rivera, referring to his conversations with both Posada and other members of the pitching staff. “We talk about how we would attack hitters in certain situations, but you have to understand, too, that the stuff you have is not the same stuff that the other guys have. The mentality of the game is more applicable to each individual. They won’t do what I’d do, and I won’t do what they do.
“The hitter [influences] it, too. If you’re in a situation, okay, a pitcher has a breaking ball, a good fastball, and a good splitter, so here he might be using his splitter and not his fastball. Why? Because the hitter is looking for the fastball. The game will dictate what you need to do in certain situations.
“Scouting reports are there for a reason. They’re not there just to throw away. A lot of time and effort goes into those reports, so when you have them, you have to pay attention. How much do I use them? I use them enough for what I have to do.”
A.J. Burnett is among those who enjoys discussing the ins and outs of pitching with Rivera.
“A lot of people think that he’s been closing this whole time with one pitch, so how hard could it be, but he’s very intelligent,“ said Burnett. “It’s fun watching a game with him, in the dugout, before he heads out to the bullpen. He’s got such an idea of how to pitch that you would think he has four or five pitches. He talks about pitch sequencing. He’ll say, “Curveball down, right here,” or “Elevate, right here.” What he brings, pitch sequence- wise and confidence-wise… those are two things you can’t really teach. It just comes naturally for him.”
Opposing players are equally effusive in their praise, albeit for entirely different reasons. They hate to see Rivera on the mound. Batters have hit just .208 against him lifetime, and in three of the past four seasons he’s held them under the Mendoza line. He was especially effective against right-handed hitters in 2011, holding them to a .186 average. Left-handed hitters fared slightly better, hitting .238.
Mike Cameron, who swings from the right side, and Matt Joyce, who swings from the left, are among those who appreciate Rivera’s brilliance. They don’t have extensive experience against him — a combined 15 plate appearances, with two base hits — but they know greatness when they see it
“He’s definitely not fun to hit against,“ said Cameron, who has faced Rivera as a member of the Mariners and Red Sox. “You have to make him get the ball over the plate a little bit. That’s about it, man. It isn’t rocket science facing that guy. You want it out over the plate, because he’s either going to bust you inside or throw the cutter away, and both are tough to square up. Sometimes he’ll try to elevate the ball. You’ve got a chance when it’s down, but the elevation on that thing is nasty. He knows what he‘s doing out there, too. He knows how to attack hitters.”
“He’s obviously one of the most dominant closers in the game,” agreed Joyce, who plays for the Tampa Bay Rays. “When you’re facing him, you know the cutter is coming, and you try to prepare for it as much as possible, but I’m not sure that’s even possible. He’s dominated the game with one pitch for so long. It’s amazing that hitters know it’s coming and still can’t do anything with it. A big reason is that he knows how to spot it and he knows where to throw it to hitters. You have to be a smart pitcher in order to have as many saves as he does.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.