Matt Bowman, Chaz Roe, and Justus Sheffield on Crafting Their Cutters and Sliders

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In this installment of the series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Matt Bowman, Chaz Roe, and Justus Sheffield — on how they learned and developed their sliders and cutters.

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Matt Bowman, Cincinnati Reds

“With the unfortunate news of Roy Halladay [in November 2017] came the story of Mariano Rivera teaching him the cutter. I watched the interviews they did about how they threw it, and what their cues are. Halladay had that ball where he drew the outline of where his fingers should be. I literally gripped it the same way.

Matt Bowman’s cutter grip.

“I’ve always had trouble with breaking balls, but for some reason that pitch clicked for me. This happened last offseason, so going into 2019 is when I added a cutter. I hadn’t thrown one before. I didn’t know anything about throwing one.

“For me, the key is thinking about hemispheres. You think about the way that you preset the angle, the way you preset your wrist. Then you just throw it as if it’s a fastball. Really, it’s just the grip. I don’t know if it’s an anatomical difference that makes it works for me, or… I just set it the way the two of them showed how you set it, and it has a lot of horizontal movement while maintaining a decent amount of vertical movement.

“They didn’t have the type of data available when Halladay and Rivera threw theirs, so it’s unclear exactly what the movement profile was on theirs. But for me, personally, you try to up the spin rate. Kenley Jansen has an excellent cutter with an extremely high spin rate. The readout is about 50% spin efficiency, with a little more than zero horizontal movement to the glove side.

“I’m not trying to get much depth on it. If I wanted to throw a true slider, I’d try to throw a true slider. Here we have Robert Stephenson, we have Amir Garrett — guys who throw true sliders. At the end of the day, a cutter isn’t a swing-and-miss pitch; it’s more of a contact pitch. If I wanted to delve into pitches that are more swing-and-miss, I’d go somewhere else. This pitch is a low exit velocity, contact pitch. It’s really more of a cut fastball. There’s probably a 3 mph difference from my four-seamer and my sinker.

“Again, I’ve always struggled with breaking balls. One reason I liked this one so much is that I was new to an organization and didn’t have a huge amount of time to tinker. If you’re Trevor Bauer, you can spend the whole offseason shaping pitches. You can say, ‘All right, I have all the information I need; I can work on it, then I’ll have spring training to work on it some more.’ For someone in my position, coming into a new organization — and maybe you don’t have the same foundational knowledge that someone like Trevor has, so you’re basically experimenting — you’re going to have to scrap something if it doesn’t pay off quickly. You’re not there to try new things; you’re there to get results and compete for a spot on the team.”

Chaz Roe, Tampa Bay Rays

“I started out with a curveball when I first got drafted, but then I kind of lost the feel for it. Once I went to the pen — this was in 2011 — it kind of became more of a slider than a traditional breaking ball. It just started moving like one. I dropped my arm angle down a little bit, and was getting more of that slurvy action, rather than up-to-down 12-6. Really, my arm angle is the only thing that changed. The grip stayed the same.

“There’s not much [conscious shaping of it], man. It has a mind of its own a lot of the time. Sometimes I throw it and it’s big, and sometimes I throw it and it’s short. Sometimes it’s got more depth, and sometimes it’s got more horizontal. It is what it is. I’ve talked to a bunch of different guys, like Sergio Romo. He can change his to different depths, different speeds. I’ve tried to do that, but it’s hard for me to control it that way. Like I said, it tends to have a mind of its own.

“[Pitching coach] Kyle Snyder always gives good feedback about things like my spin rate, the action, and all that. But I don’t change anything; I basically just throw it. Sometimes it will just spin and act like a backup slider. A lot of times it will freeze hitters that way. They’re expecting a big break and it kind of just stops in mid-air. I don’t try to do that, though. It just happens.”

Justus Sheffield, Seattle Mariners

“I learned a slider my senior year in high school. I’ve always thrown a curveball — I had a good curveball — and then, in my head, I wanted to throw a harder curveball. Pretty much what I was thinking was ‘slurve.’ Then, as the years went on, as pro ball went on, I kind of tweaked it. When I’m throwing it, I’m using the inside of my middle finger and the fat part of my thumb.

Justus Sheffield’s slider grip.

“I had both pitches when I got drafted [by Cleveland in 2014]. The Indians took away the curveball my first year, because they said the two look too much the same, and they thought my slider could be a better pitch. So we banged the curveball and started focusing on the slider.

“At first, I was more or less just throwing it like a curveball — I was staying on top of the ball like a curveball — and adding a little bit more velocity to it. Over time, I was able to start shaping it more, starting to get more down depth on it. I’d always had the sweep on it, side-to-side, but I wanted more north-to-south. I was able to get that. It works well from my release point, from a three-quarters angle. The grip didn’t actually change. It’s literally a curveball grip, and in my head I’m throwing a curveball, but it comes out a slider.

“From what I’ve seen on the Edgertronic, my hand path stays the same on my fastball, my changeup, and my slider. The bad ones are when I drop, and get around [the ball]. If I’m staying on top of it — my fingers are on top of the ball — and I’m getting extended through it, it’s a good pitch. Even though I’m from a three-quarters slot, I get the downward action that I want.”





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.

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I love these types of articles – thanks for writing them.