Rangers pitchers swear by cutter's edge

Rangers pitchers swear by cutter's edge

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Tommy Hunter, after one spot start against Oakland on May 29, was back at Triple-A Oklahoma City and playing catch with pitching coach Terry Clark.

He was fooling around with the grip on a baseball and decided to try it during a side throwing session in the bullpen. The first time he threw the pitch, Clark was amazed.

"What was that?" Clark asked.

The answer was a "cut fastball."

"The next day I started using it in the game and I have been using it ever since," Hunter said.

Meet the pitch that was a big weapon for the Rangers' pitching staff last year and will be again this season. Texas has a pitching staff that swears by the cut fastball.

"It was a big pitch for a lot of guys," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "It's a good contact pitch that forces the issue. Getting contact is what we're looking for."

The cut fastball is a good weapon to use against a hitter batting from the opposite side of the plate: right-handed pitcher vs. a left-hander hitter for example. That's usually a matchup that favors the hitter. A good cut fastball can tilt the odds back in the pitcher's favor.

For a right-handed pitcher, the "cutter" -- as it is also known -- comes in like a regular fastball but then breaks in hard against the left-handed hitter, ideally jamming him on the fists.

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"The cutter is a pitch you want swung at," reliever C.J. Wilson said. "You make the hitter foul the pitch off, or break his bat."

There are actually multiple variations of the fastball. The four-seam fastball is hard and straight, the ultimate measurement of a pitcher's velocity. Nolan Ryan's fastball was legendary.

The two-seam fastball is the sinker. For a right-handed pitcher, that will break down and in on a right-handed hitter. Against a left-handed hitter, it goes down and away. Former Rangers pitcher Kevin Brown had a great sinker.

There is also the split-fingered fastball. Also known as the splitter or forkball, it comes in like a fastball but at decreased velocity, then tumbles straight down as it reaches the plate. Roger Clemens mastered the pitch.

The cut fastball is almost the opposite of the sinker. Scott Feldman, a right-handed pitcher who won 17 games last year, uses both. His sinker goes down and away from left-handed hitters, his cut fastball comes hard and in on their hands. Both come toward the plate on the same "stem" and then break in different directions.

"It definitely helps to have a pitch you can throw into left-handers as well as right-handers," Feldman said.

Feldman has always had a good sinker but his cut fastball was a great pitch for him last year. Left-handed hitters batted .226 off him as opposed to .277 against right-handed hitters. The year before, left-handed hitters batted .291 off him.

Brandon McCarthy saw Feldman's success and is trying to throw the cut fastball this spring.

CUTTING BOTH WAYS
Rangers pitchers vs. left- and right-handed hitters in 2009.
Pitcher Throws vs. LH vs. RH
Pedro Strop RHP .154 .308
Neftali Feliz RHP .155 .085
Jason Grilli RHP .192 .244
Josh Rupe RHP .200 .625
C.J. Wilson LHP .206 .249
Matt Harrison LHP .210 .351
Scott Feldman RHP .226 .277
Darren O'Day RHP .234 .164
Frank Francisco RHP .238 .186
Kevin Millwood RHP .240 .272
Doug Mathis RHP .250 .239
Kris Benson RHP .255 .452
Dustin Nippert RHP .257 .231
Brandon McCarthy RHP .264 .246
Willie Eyre RHP .286 .278
Derek Holland LHP .287 .289
Tommy Hunter RHP .287 .228
Vicente Padilla RHP .319 .246
Jason Jennings RHP .327 .257
Eddie Guardado LHP .333 .228
Guillermo Moscoso RHP .412 .205
Warner Madrigal RHP .481 .185
Luis Mendoza RHP 1.000 .000

"Feldman was one of the first ones," Hunter said. "Once people found it worked, guys jumped on it. Everybody wants to improve their arsenal and it worked for a lot of guys."

A regular fastball is gripped with the two fingers directly on top of the ball. Move the fingers "off-set" just a millimeter or two inside and the pitcher gets a sinker. Move it just to the outside and that gives a pitcher the cut fastball.

"It's a big pitch around the game," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said. "It's an in-vogue pitch. Everybody is trying to throw the cutter. If you throw it well, it's a good pitch. It comes down to control. But if you get the late life on it, it's definitely a good pitch to use."

Former Braves and Mets left-hander Tom Glavine, who won 305 career games, loved it against right-handed hitters. He would throw his changeup and sinker low and away against them, then catch them leaning over the plate by busting the cut fastball inside. Left-handers Mark Buehrle and Andy Pettitte and right-hander Roy Halladay all use the cut fastball extensively.

But the "gold standard" is Yankees right-handed reliever Mariano Rivera. He is riding the cut fastball to the Hall of Fame, using it almost exclusively against left- and right-handed hitters on both sides of the plate.

Against left-handed hitters, he can bust the pitch on their hands on the inside of the plate as well as bring it "back door" on the outside of the plate. Against right-handers, he uses it to gain the same advantage as a curveball or slider.

Rangers left-handed pitcher Matt Harrison, at the suggestion of former pitching coach Mark Connor, started using the cut fastball as a way to compensate for a below average breaking ball.

In right vs. right or left vs. left matchups, the cut fastball breaks away from the hitter just like the traditional breaking ball but can be easier to control because there is less vertical drop. The movement is mainly horizontal, which is why it's considered a good contact pitch. The contact is there but often results in a broken-bat grounder or a ball hit off the end of the bat.

"But I tried it against Vladimir Guerrero and it didn't work," Wilson said. "He was so strong, he broke his bat and muscled the ball over the infield for a bloop single."

No pitch is perfect. But the cut fastball is proving to be a big pitch for the Rangers' much-improved pitching staff.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.