Thursday, September 17, 2009

Finding Hidden Value- the Cutter

The key to Rizzo's philosophy with pitching has been to keep the ball in the park. He has done this by bringing in ground ball pitchers and finding guys who can pick up the thing behind them and chuck it around to record some outs. This has worked for several clubs, so Rizzo has tried to get a leg up on the competition with his own model.

The problem with sinker ball pitchers is that they do not generate many strikeouts, as noted that they are dead last. (Pittsburgh, the second worst team in the NL, has 11 more than the Nats) The theory is simple: a swinging strike rarely generates a base runner, let alone a run. The Nats had Stephen Strasburg fall into their laps, and he is likely to generate a few of his own. But what about the rest of these guys? How can the Nats maximize the effectiveness of their staff, both current and future players?

Sky Kalkman provides some interesting data on the cut fastball.
While the data he provides has many shortcomings, it illustrates several things. First, given the infrequency in which batters see the cutter, it immediately becomes a weapon, almost as much so as the knuckleball. Second, while the hitting numbers for the cutter appear weaker in an 0-2 count, where a pitcher would be using it strike a batter out, the numbers it produces in a 2-0 count are staggering. 2-0 cutters are thrown in the zone 66% of the time, swung at and missed 15%, and generate a BABIP of .273.

2-0 Counts % Zone Swing Whiff BABIP HR CON
Curveball 2% 57% 19% 35% .217 4.0%
Cutter 3% 66% 44% 15% .273 1.8%
Fastball 76% 62% 40% 12% .333 3.4%
Off-speed 10% 56% 39% 28% .248 4.9%
Slider 9% 61% 36% 29% .343 2.4%

The cutter, especially in hitters' counts, does exactly what Rizzo is aiming for: keeping the ball in the park. Overall, the cutter trails only the curveball in home run rate. The biggest advantage is that the cutter can be used inside the strike zone much more effectively. The result is fewer hitters' counts, and an available "out pitch" in a hitters' count.

All Counts % Zone Swing Whiff BABIP HR CON
Curveball 9% 46% 39% 28% .296 1.6%
Cutter 3% 56% 49% 18% .289 1.7%
Fastball 59% 55% 44% 14% .308 2.1%
Off-speed 12% 47% 48% 27% .288 2.2%
Slider 17% 50% 47% 29% .285 2.0%

Obviously Steve McCatty just can't have ALL the guys pick up the cutter, but when looking at some pitchers with great location (Craig Stammen) that just don't have enough in their arsenal to be anything more than a number 5 guy, why not give it a shot.

Sky mentions numerous success stories, but he omits what I find to be the most interesting case. Mark DiFelice of the Brewers has owned righties, absolutely owned them. In 51 innings, he has walked 15 and struck out 48, throwing his blazing 83 mph cutter exclusively. There are theories as to why his cutter works, but the applications should be the same. Work in the zone early, then expand the zone to get outs. Too many pitchers on the Nats do not throw first pitch strikes for fear of giving up too many hard-hit balls.

The cutter may be a fad, it may be too difficult for most pitchers to master, but the slider and the splitter both changed the game. For a team looking to make up some ground in the standings, the Nats need all the help they can get. Rizzo believes sabermetrics is easy... yes, reading numbers off a sheet and choosing the best ones is easy. But will he be the one to go off on his own and try something new, generate his own model for success?

** I will work out the chart formatting soon... stupid blogger formatting.

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