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.
Wade LeBlanc, Seattle Mariners
“I learned a cutter in 2009. I taught myself. That was after I got my brains beat in, and got sent back to Triple-A. I figured it was my last shot. If I was going to make anything out of this career, I was going to have to find something that worked.
“My fear about throwing cutters, or sliders, was always arm issues. I’ve never actually had an arm issue, but that was the fear. I didn’t want to throw something that could cause some problems with my arm, so I’d held off. But at that point, I was on my last legs. It was either figure something out, or go home.
“A cutter was the pitch at that time — it was becoming the in-thing to throw — and for a guy like me, who was a changeup guy, it would be something I could run in to right-handed hitters. It was a pitch to get them off of the changeup down and away.
“Again, I learned it on my own. I had an idea, from watching stories on Mariano Rivera. It’s a four-seam fastball that you basically off-center. I started tinkering, and found a grip that was comfortable for me. This was in the middle of that season. About a week later, I was throwing it in games. Like I said, it was a last-ditch effort. Fast forward to today. This is what, coming up on 10 years? Here we are.”
Michael Lorenzen, Cincinnati Reds
“I kind of learned my cutter watching MLB Network. They were talking about Bartolo Colon, and how he was throwing something like 90% fastballs. Pedro Martinez was on the show, and he goes, ‘Yeah, he’s throwing fastballs, but they’re different variations. Some of them have sink, some of them are four-seams, and some of them are cutting at the end.’ To get the cutting action, Colon had a little bit of turn on the release point, just to make it a different fastball.
“I was like, ‘Wow. That’s kind of a good idea. I wonder if that would work for me — throw a fastball, and as late as I possibly can, give it a little turn. Maybe I could throw a little cutter?’
“The next day, I started throwing that. This was at the very end of 2015. I threw it in a game a couple of times, and it was like 94 mph. It was a cutter, and it was moving pretty good. I was like, ‘Wow. That was pretty simple.’
“Basically, it’s a four-seam fastball that I rotate a little bit. The more I turn it … it could be a 90 mph slider, or it could be a 93 or 94 mph cutter. And the later I turn, the firmer and tighter it will be. The earlier I do that, the bigger and more slider-y it will be.
“So, it started by listening to what Pedro Martinez was saying about Bartolo Colon. When I showed up the next spring they asked, ‘What is that?’ I was like, ‘It’s a cutter.’ They were like, ‘Oh, a cutter-slider thing?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s really hard, so I think it’s a cutter.’ It’s like 93-94, and if I’m really late with it, and barely turn, I can get up to 96. I don’t know exactly what the spin rate is, but it’s higher than my four-seam fastball.”
Lou Trivino, Oakland A’s
“I was going into my junior year of college. I’d never really had a good hard breaking ball. — my slider was kind of loopy — and I needed something that I could get outs with. My pitching coach at the time was a guy named Rob Kell, and he said, ‘Try this cutter.’ So I did. When I’d leave it arm side, it would just take off on me. But when I’d get it glove side, it was hard and sharp. OK, I might have something here.
“It’s one of the pitches that got me drafted that year, although I never really used it my first two years in the minors. Once I got into a relieving role is when I started using it more and more and more. The last two years it’s obviously been my best pitch.
“When I first started learning my cutter… it’s a cutter-slider now. I used to throw a true cutter, but I got sick and tired of the broken-bat hits when I went in to lefties. It was a one-plane pitch. That’s why I have so much respect for Mariano Rivera. He was able to have a true cutter and get strikeouts. He could dominate. For me, every time I threw that thing I felt like I was beating the hitter, but he was blooping it over the infield.
“I needed more depth, so I started fidgeting around with it. I’d been throwing it just like Rivera’s cutter. Exact same grip. He had his thumb tucked way underneath — it was a four-seam grip, pretty much — then I started to change it. So what I did … if you want more sink with your two-seam fastball, usually you’re going to bring your thumb up a little bit on the ball. It’s going to be a little slower, but you’re going to get more depth.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to do that with my cutter.’ I started bringing my thumb up more and more, and got more depth. Instead of a one-plane pitch, now it’s a two-plane pitch. Now I can miss the barrel, and potentially get a swing and miss. For me, the depth is paramount. I can still throw it hard. Ideally I’d love for it to be 93-94 [mph] all the time, but it will drop down from that a little bit.
“Anyway, that’s been the evolution of my cutter-slider. Whatever you want to call it. Some people can say it’s a slider, but I keep my mindset cutter, cutter, and keep late hand-speed through the ball. If I think slider, I get around it too much. I guess the best way to describe it is a cutter with depth.”
The 2018 installments of this series can be found here.
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.