Patterson was the Blue Jays' pitching coach when Halladay—after overhauling his delivery in the minors under the tutelage of minor league pitching coach Mel Queen—had his breakout 2002 season with Toronto and won the AL Cy Young a year later. The pitcher who finished second in the voting that year was White Sox righthander Esteban Loaiza, then a 31-year-old journeyman who a year earlier, as a struggling Blue Jay, learned the cutter from Patterson. Loaiza perfected it under White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, another well-known proponent of the cutter. "[Loaiza] threw the slider, and it was too big and loopy," says Patterson. "We worked on shortening the slider, and he picked the cutter up in two side sessions." Halladay learned his cutter the same way. "When Doc lowered his arm angle, he created the movement on his pitches," says Patterson. "We shortened his slider because it was too big—that's how his cutter came about."
Patterson is now watching his former student attain a higher plane in his 14th season, as he relies more on his cutter: Five seasons ago Halladay was throwing it 19.3% of the time, and so far this season—as he has the highest strikeout rate of his career (8.9) and leads the majors in innings (98 1/3), complete games (4), walk rate (1.9), and wins (8)—Halladay is firing more cutters (45.2% of his pitches, a major league high among starters) and fewer fastballs (25.4%) than ever. His rotation mates are following his lead: Almost one out of every four pitches thrown by a Phillies starter this season has been a cutter.
Cutter love is sweeping across baseball. In 2005 five major league starters threw the cutter more than 15% of the time; last year 14 did; this season, that number had ballooned to 24 at week's end. "The majority of our pitchers are throwing cutters, or working on them," says Levine of the Rangers' staff, which has undergone a stunning turnaround in recent seasons. "Five years ago, you read advance reports and five percent of guys had cutters in their repertoire. Now, it's 70 percent to 80 percent. The pitch is in almost every scouting report now."
The Cy Young candidate, the pitcher who turned to the cutter out of desperation, is sitting at his locker at Angel Stadium, thinking back to the moment he felt his career slipping away. "Some guys can be stubborn and think their stuff is still good enough and not make changes, but before you know it, they're out of the game," says Haren, who struggled with the Diamondbacks early last season and was dealt to the Angels in July.
"I remember going in to talk to [manager] Mike Scioscia when I got here about what kind of pitcher I was," says the 30-year-old, a three-time All-Star with the A's and D-Backs who was 5--3 with the AL's fourth-best ERA (2.29) and second-best WHIP (0.94) through Sunday. "I said I was going to have to be a guy that relied on movement and keeping hitters off balance. In my Oakland days I was a fastball-split guy, but I don't throw hard anymore. I don't blow anyone away anymore. And no one wants to throw 89, 90 and try to spot that down and away. That's dangerous."
Like Boston's Josh Beckett this season, Haren is a veteran who, in his 30s, has transformed himself into a more effective pitcher. Haren had fooled around with a cutter as a young pitcher—"I remember guys laughing at it because it was terrible," he says—but with the Angels he committed to the pitch, gripping the ball "like a slider, with pressure on the middle finger," and over time he counted on it more in games. "The key was just really believing in it," says the righthander, who, after throwing the pitch a little more than a quarter of the time last year, has seen his cutter usage skyrocket to 41.9% this season. "Now I try to throw it right down the middle and trust that it's going to move to the outer part. The times I pull it out for a ball are times that I'm not trusting it."
A righthanded batter facing Haren's cutter watches it tail away from him. A lefthander sees the ball come inside—he swings thinking the ball will hit the barrel of the bat, while the pitch veers toward the handle. "Guys like Haren that used to throw 94 but are now throwing 90, 91, they throw a cutter because it makes the 91-mph fastball seem like 94," says A's shortstop Cliff Pennington. "Haren's is just so hard to pick up and distinguish from his slider—it's got less break but the velo is harder, so you see fastball and you swing and it breaks enough to miss. If you see the spin on it and you think breaking ball, then you're late."
Everyone on the Angels' staff wants Haren's cutter, from 32-year-old journeyman Joel Piniero ("It just doesn't work for me," he says. "I don't know if it's my arm angle, release point, or because I don't have big hands—I'm going to keep searching for it") to 28-year-old ace Jered Weaver, who, despite already having four above-average pitches in his arsenal, has spent the last few months trying to conquer it. "It would just be another weapon, something else for guys to think about," says Weaver. "I've been trying it since spring training, playing around with it with [Haren]. But I'm going to keep trying."
Haren's advice to Weaver: Stay away from it. "Weaver wants one bad," he says. "We'll be playing catch and he'll try to throw one, and it'll be terrible. I tell Jered this: It's not for everyone. It can mess up your other pitches—you can lose your feel for the pitch. You can lose your grip on your curveball. You can start to lose velocity on your fastball. Jered's stuff is already good enough. He doesn't need it. When he's old like me, he'll need it."
Rivera's cutter is one of the most unhittable pitches in the history of the game. "You can't see the spin on it," says Berkman, a switch-hitter who bats lefthanded against the righty Rivera. "A four-seam fastball rotates a certain way. And anything that's going to come in on you, like a slider or a cutter, is going to spin a certain way—you see a red dot on the ball as it's coming at you from the seams as it spins. And once you see the rotation on it, you react a certain way. The good cutters, like Rivera's, rotate like a four-seamer—you don't see the red dot, you don't know it's going to come in on you until it's too late."