For more than a decade and a half, Mariano Rivera and the cut fastball have been synonymous. Rivera's cutter is famous; he has thrown the second-most cutters of any pitcher since 2009 (Roy Halladay has thrown 13 more), despite throwing 9,009 total pitches fewer than the leading pitcher during that time, and has a .514 OPS allowed and .228 Weighted On Base Average with the pitch, both second-best among pitchers who have thrown at least 500 of them during that time.
But this column is not about Mariano Rivera. It is about his signature pitch: that almighty cutter.
The lure of the cutter is simple. It bores in on the hands of hitters who bat from the opposite side: left-handed hitters when thrown by a right-hander such as Rivera or right-handed hitters when thrown by a left-hander such as Cole Hamels. Hamels, incidentally, threw the 11th-most cutters of any pitcher in the majors in 2011 (519).
The cutter is the "in vogue" pitch of the moment.
The sample might be small -- we are, after all, only 6.2 percent of the way through the 2012 schedule -- but so far, cutter usage is up 1.5 percent across the majors from 2011. And while that number might be small, keep in mind that only 74 pitchers in the majors have even thrown a cutter this season, and the ones who have are typically outstanding when they do: Opposing hitters have combined to manage just .236/.291/.388 triple-slash rates and a .296 wOBA against cutters in 2012.
Returning to Hamels, and spinning it forward to this year's cutter-happy crew, his example might be most encouraging to Zack Greinke's owners. Greinke is one of two pitchers who, after throwing cutters less than 2.5 percent of the time in 2011, has thrown the pitch 15-plus percent more often in 2012. Might it be that Greinke, an extremely attractive preseason bargain candidate who dominated in regular-season start No. 1, merely struggled in start No. 2 as a direct result of adjustments to his arsenal? Consider that when Hamels introduced the pitch in 2010, he endured a somewhat shaky stretch initially:
Hamels' April 2010: 5 GS, 1 QS, 5.28 ERA, 1.47 WHIP
Hamels' May-September 2010: 28 GS, 20 QS, 2.68 ERA, 1.13 WHIP
Hamels' 2010 second half: 15 GS, 10 QS, 2.23 ERA, 1.00 WHIP
Yes, it's possible that matchups, the weather or even random chance was equally responsible for Hamels' April 2010 as the tweak to his arsenal. Be aware, however, that since July 2010, a span of nine full, completed months, Hamels' ERA has never been higher than 3.79 ERA and his WHIP higher than 1.11 in a single month, and he has a 2.65 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 52 games (51 starts) since July 1, 2010. The case can be made that Hamels has fully mastered the cutter since that date, and there's no question that he is a more productive fantasy pitcher now that he has.
Greinke's fantasy owners should also like this comparison:
Average fastball velocity: 92.5 mph in 2011, 92.9 in 2012
K/9 ratio: 10.54 in 2011, 10.13 in 2012
BB/9 ratio: 2.36 in 2011, 0.84 in 2012
Ground ball rate: 48.5 percent in 2011, 54.8 in 2012
Sure enough, just as he did last season, Greinke finds himself among the major league leaders in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching score) and xFIP (Expected FIP); his 0.92 FIP is tops in the majors and his 1.57 xFIP second-best. Minuscule samples, yes, but they continue to underscore his potential as a true fantasy ace, and his owners need practice patience through what could be a few more "ordinary" starts as he works to master the cutter.
In the event Greinke's owners adopt the attitude that he is not the No. 11 starting pitcher they drafted on average in the preseason in ESPN Live Drafts -- something much more likely to happen if he's sporting, say, a 5.14 ERA on May 10 -- he'd be a brilliant trade target, even if he costs you a price equivalent to that No. 11 average draft position. And if you drafted him, be patient, as the long-term payoff will be immense.
The other pitcher who has thrown a cutter at least 15 percent more often in 2012 is Jeremy Hellickson, a pitcher who presents a curious contrast to sabermetric darling Greinke. No statistic puts the two in greater contrast than this: While Greinke's 2.56 xFIP led the majors last season, Hellickson's 4.72 was third-worst.
Following a forgettable, five-runs-in-five-innings performance at Boston's Fenway Park this past Saturday, Hellickson's fantasy owners might understandably be beginning to have doubts about the man they selected 26th on average among starting pitchers. As in 2011, the right-hander isn't striking out hitters and he's giving up a slew of fly balls (53.3 percent rate, seventh-highest in the majors), and he's throwing fewer strikes to boot.
Besides the obvious that Hellickson's first two matchups -- versus the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox -- were treacherous, how about the possibility that he, like Greinke or Hamels in 2010, is working through the adjustment of greater reliance on his cutter? He has already thrown 40 cutters in 217 pitches this season, or 18.4 percent; he threw three cutters total in all of 2011.
Hellickson's addition of a cutter can be regarded as a potential plus, being that he previously lacked a dominant pitch to use versus left-handed hitters. Lefties managed .230/.323/.403 triple-slash rates against him last season, representing a 141-point OPS differential compared to his .188/.246/.339 numbers against righties. Frankly, for a pitcher who won't rank among the league's leaders in strikeouts -- even accounting for the possibility that the disparity between his swing-and-miss rate and actual strikeout rate meant he was somewhat unlucky in the category last year -- any possible advantage Hellickson can bring to the table should be described as help. Look at it like this: Considering the "regression" chatter surrounding him, would you rather he have coasted on his 2011 skill set or make a specific attempt to improve his arsenal?
That's not to say that Hellickson is a trade target today. If he's truly in the midst of an adjustment period, for instance, his perceived value might have room to decrease in the coming weeks. In a shallow mixed league, for instance, he might be only two or three more mediocre outings from being cut loose, and in deeper AL-only leagues, he might be three to five so-so starts away from being a trade target.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Among streaming starter options for the upcoming week (something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer), here are my picks by day:
Tuesday, April 17: Kevin Millwood versus Cleveland Indians
Wednesday, April 18: Juan Nicasio versus San Diego Padres
Thursday, April 19: Phil Hughes versus Minnesota Twins
Friday, April 20: Jonathon Niese versus San Francisco Giants
Saturday, April 21: Philip Humber at Seattle Mariners
Sunday, April 22: Joe Blanton at San Diego Padres
Monday, April 23: Jake Peavy at Oakland Athletics
Tuesday, April 10, Trevor Cahill: QS, 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 6 BB, 5 K
Wednesday, April 11, Erik Bedard: 5 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Thursday, April 12, Chris Capuano: W, 5 1/3 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 7 K
Friday, April 13, Bartolo Colon: W, QS, 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
Saturday, April 14, Carlos Zambrano: QS, 6 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 6 BB, 4 K
Sunday, April 15, Henderson Alvarez (pitched April 14): QS, 7 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K
Monday, April 16, Joe Saunders: W, QS, 7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Week's total: 7 GS, 3 W (42.9%), 5 QS (71.4%), 43 1/3 IP, 35 H, 10 ER, 17 BB, 31 K, 2.08 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
Season total: 12 GS, 5 W (41.7%), 9 QS (75.0%), 77 IP, 53 H, 16 ER, 29 BB, 47 K, 1.87 ERA, 1.06 WHIP
Kyle Drabek, Toronto Blue Jays: It's a simple statement, yet the truth, to say that Drabek's most substantial improvement this year upon last is that he's actually throwing strikes. This is a pitcher who walked more hitters (55) than he struck out (51) a year ago, but through his first two starts he has 10 whiffs compared to four walks. But there's more: Drabek's improvements with both his two-seam fastball, a key contributor to his 50.0 percent ground ball rate so far, and changeup have made him a more complete pitcher. They decrease his chances at a significant platoon split and an untimely bad inning, so long as he continues to throw them for strikes. After a year as poor as Drabek's 2011, it's understandable if fantasy owners have since forgotten how much scouts liked him at the time of his big league debut: He was forecasted a potential future staff ace. Those skills remain present and make him well worth the investment as a back-of-your-staff option.
Jonathon Niese, New York Mets: It's only two starts' worth of data, sure, but in them Niese has demonstrated why statistics such as FIP can be so valuable when seeking fantasy bargain candidates. The left-hander's 1.04 differential between ERA (4.40) and FIP (3.36) last season was fifth-greatest among pitchers with at least 150 innings, and it was largely thanks to his 3.14 strikeouts-per-walk ratio and 53.6 percent ground ball rate, minimizing his risk of disastrous innings and underscoring his stat line as one possibly influenced by bad luck. Niese is at it again; he has increased his strikeout rate to 8.53 per nine and boosted his ground ball rate to 66.7 percent, and he even took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his 2012 debut. He also did so against competitive Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies teams -- granted two that have struggled offensively thus far -- which is another plus. Win potential might be a problem for Mets starters, and that could be an obstacle as Niese aims for the top 40 fantasy starting pitchers, but on skills alone Niese might yet join that class heck, he has an outside shot at the top 30.
Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants: As crazy as such a statement sounds, there might yet be something there with Zito this season. Pitchers who have endured the kind of career decline that he has, especially when they begin a certain year age 33, are so often written off. But the reason he warrants a closer look is that through two starts he looks like a pitcher who has made noticeable adjustments. He's throwing more strikes, his 0.56 walks-per-nine innings ratio a substantial improvement upon what had been a string of seven consecutive seasons in which his number was greater than 3.50. He's leaning considerably more on a slider, throwing it 37.4 percent of the time, up from 14.0 percent from 2009-11, and has limited opponents to a 2-for-24 performance with it thus far. Now, neither of those skills improvements represents the kind of seeds that should inspire a massive rebound campaign for Zito. After all, his slider isn't even swing-and-miss quality (17.1 miss percentage). But they do cement his status as a viable NL-only option and a matchups candidate, at the least, in mixed leagues.
Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies: Chacin's quest for a rebound season hasn't gone smoothly through his first two starts, and most disconcerting is that many of his trouble spots during his sophomore campaign remain uncorrected in this, Year 3. Our 30 Questions series raised those concerns: Chacin walks too many hitters, his 4.04 walks-per-nine innings ratio in 2011 ballooning to 9.00 so far this year (8 BB in 8 IP); his fastball still isn't swing-and-miss good, as opponents are hitting .308/.571/.538 against it so far after .273/.371/.453 in 2011; and while he's throwing his changeup more (21.4 percent of his pitches, up from 9.7 percent), there's an incredibly slim differential between it (84.8 mph on average) and his fastball (89.6 mph). All these things sum up to a pitcher who remains in his early-career adjustment period, as hinted was the case in 2011 the 30 Questions column, and it means Chacin's true fantasy breakthrough might be pushed back until later this season if it happens at all in 2012.
Phil Hughes, New York Yankees: The concern for Hughes is not so much that a slow start means his career is potentially headed down the drain; it's that his rotation spot, at least for this season, might soon be in jeopardy if he doesn't straighten himself out. The Yankees, after all, will soon have Andy Pettitte in their starting five, and then likely Michael Pineda a couple weeks later, meaning two incumbents will presumably go once those two are ready. Hughes hasn't even made it to five innings in either of his first two starts, and while his fastball has a tad more velocity this year (91.9 mph on average) than last (91.2), that's still beneath the 92.4 mph he averaged as a breakthrough starter in 2010, and opponents' numbers against the pitch this season reflect it (.348/.375/.783 triple-slash rates). Hughes might not be many more starts away from a demotion, be it to the bullpen or the minors, and his ranking this week reflects that possibility.
Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins: Is he your poster boy for why you should never exaggerate spring statistics? Many were abuzz about Liriano after he managed a 2.33 ERA and 6.60 strikeouts-per-walk ratio in seven Grapefruit League starts, numbers reminiscent of his 2.70 and 6.00 in the spring of 2010, which he then followed up with a respectable 14 wins, 3.62 ERA and 1.26 WHIP during the regular season. The problem this time, however, is that since the games have begun to count he has looked every bit the headache to fantasy owners that he was in 2011. His fastball velocity is no better, averaging 91.0 mph after 91.7 in 2011; he has a 5.00 walks-per-nine ratio, after 5.02 in 2011, and his slider, once his best pitch, has been tattooed to the tune of .467/.500/.600 triple-slash rates, albeit in only 16 plate appearances that have ended with the pitch. Liriano's stuff, simply put, looks more like it did in 2011 than 2010, so brace yourself for continued unpredictability.
That said, remember that one time I put Liriano in "Three Down" in the early weeks of last season and he threw a no-hitter the evening the column was published. And he pitches on Tuesday night. Hmmm.
Of course, Liriano subsequently stunk. It was the right call.