In his last start, the Giants’ Matt Moore did something he’d never done before. Not no-hit a team through eight innings: he’d thrown an actual no-hitter before, in Double-A in 2011, on 98 pitches on his brother’s birthday. He’d thrown a one-hitter before, too — albeit over seven innings instead of 9.2, and earlier in his pro career.
What he did this Aug. 25 against the Dodgers that he’d never done before was throw a cutter 29 times. Only twice had he thrown the pitch even 10 times, but there he was going to the well, again and again, on his way to an oh-no instead of a no-no.
Weirdly, he didn’t get a single whiff on the pitch. But it doesn’t seem like the swinging strike is the point to the pitcher. Nearly everything else is.
“It’s off of my fastball, and it looks like my fastball longer,” Moore said of the cutter the day after his no-hit bid was spoiled in the ninth inning by Corey Seager. Batters love to swing at fastballs, which have the highest swing rates in baseball. They swung at three-quarters of Moore’s cutters that night, and almost two-thirds of the cutters he’s thrown for his career, easily the highest swing percentage among his pitches.
For a pitcher who has had command issues in his career, the cutter is a strong pitch for two reasons. For one, getting batters to swing is a huge part of the battle when you’re not always around the plate. Moore got swings on over half his pitches against the Dodgers, something he hadn’t done in a start stretching all the way back to June.
Also, as nice as the lefty’s knuckle curve is, it’s not a great pitch command-wise. Batters only swing at it 40% of the time and it’s a ball 40% of the time. The cutter looks like a pitch he can command well. For his career, it’s the pitch with the lowest ball rate. Combine the lowest ball rate with the highest swing rate, and you can see why it might benefit him.
A byproduct of iffy command can be the home run. Over the last two years, Moore has been in the bottom 30 of pitchers by home-run rate. Here’s a fun fact about Moore’s cutter: nobody’s ever hit it for extra bases. It has a career isolated-slugging percentage of zero. A few singles and that’s it.
That won’t continue if he keeps throwing it, but there is something to the pitch that could help him limit the damage on the ball in play. “I noticed that movement was getting it in on guys,” Moore said of lefties, and for righties, “it’s moving it from the barrel to the end of the bat.”
For an unassuming pitcher, it’s an unassuming pitch in real time, but the lefty pointed out that this swing and quality of contact from Adrian Gonzalez on a cutter was a great example of what the pitch could do for him.
The cutter isn’t necessarily a ground-ball pitch across baseball, but for Moore it’s elicited a grounder 57% of the time. In his game against the Dodgers, he threw 29 cutters and two were hit on a line to the outfield. Thirteen were either popped up, grounded out, or fouled away.
If that foul rate seems high, it is. The league average is 15% for all pitches, and Moore is around 25% right now on the cutter. But the cutter is actually pretty good at getting fouls, which are good for the pitcher. It’s second best among the regularly thrown pitches in baseball.
Moore has a changeup and a curve, and so it doesn’t seem like he needs another pitch with which to battle righties. But he has had trouble late in his appearances recently, and adding another pitch is crucial to improving his late-game outcomes. Pitchers who have four pitches and use each of them more than 10% of the time do markedly better the third time through the order than pitchers who feature only three pitches, analyst Mitchel Lichtman found. “It puts another pitch in their head,” said the lefty.
Who can he thank for this new pitch, which has almost single-handedly addressed all of his issues to date? Who suggested that he throw this swing-inducing, command-improving, contact-weakening pitch? Two guys you may know: Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. The pitcher who’s made his career off his cutter took his new teammate aside and told him Moore’s version was good, and the catcher kept calling for it. Those two teammates “gave me the confidence” to throw the cutter, as Moore put it. The rest was almost history.
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.