Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Still The One


John Donovan at SI.com wrote an article today about Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks, who has gotten off to an 8-0 start. He makes this statement in the article:

"The Webb Sinker -- it's become an uppercase case of its own -- is the talk around baseball these days, supplanting Randy Johnson's slider, Roger Clemens' splitter and Johan Santana's circle change as the best pitch in the business."

While Brandon Webb does possess a fantastic sinker and while he has been particularly impressive this year, I will have to disagree with Mr. Donovan on this point because the possessor of the best pitch in the business does his work in the Bronx. Mariano Rivera has dominated hitters for ten years with basically one pitch. His cutter is responsible for more broken lumber than Paul Bunyan's Axe.

The cutter has been in use for years in baseball (recently pitcher of note who relied on the pitch are Andy Pettite, Al Leiter and Jim Abbott), but Rivera is the only one who has raised its use to the level of art. The cutter is actually a slider, or at least what used to be called a slider. The ball is thrown with extra pressure put on the middle finger in order to produce the "cutting" motion. The current day slider is actually a slurve (a combination of a slider and a curve). A slurve is thrown with the same basic grip as a curve ball, but with a tighter spin and greater velocity. It produces a downward motion as well as a "cutting" action. I don't really know when this transition actually happened, but somewhere along the line, the slurve was removed from the baseball vocabulary and became known as a slider. I guess baseball people figured that a pitch that moved on two planes was better than a pitch that moved on one. I can't say for sure, but because of this transition, the cutter was born.

As I said, there have been and are pitchers who throw the cutter, they just cannot touch the success that Rivera has had. Mariano broke into baseball as a one pitch pitcher. He threw a fastball. That was it. Not a cutter or "cut fastball", just a plain old fastball. He had a four seamer (rising fastball) and a two seamer (sinking fastball), He was quickly converted from starter to reliever in order to minimize his exposure to batters. A one pitch pitcher wouldn't last long as a starter (unless that one pitch is the always unpredictable knuckleball), because hitters would know what was coming after one trip through the lineup. And while a 95+MPH pitch is hard to hit, major leaguers can and will make the adjustment.

That is what makes Rivera's success even more amazing. Everyone knows what's coming. They know that when they get to the plate, they are going to see the cutter. He's still a one pitch pitcher, but that one pitch may be the most devastating pitch in baseball history (I'll hear an argument for Ryan's fastball or Sutter's splitter). Closers usually have one great pitch, most times it's a fastball, but in order to have any longevity, they have to throw at least two quality pitches. The best modern relievers (Eckersley, Gagne, Wagner, Hoffman), all throw at least two quality pitches. In order to consistently fool hitters, you need to keep them guessing. Even Goose Gossage used to mix in a breaking ball every now and then. Mariano doesn't throw a breaking ball. He doesn't throw an offspeed pitch. He just throws the cutter over and over again.

I'm sure one day in the not too distant future, Mo will hang up the spikes, but it's not today. And until that day comes, his cutter will remain the most devastating pitch in the game.

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