There is a mysterious and magical pitch that is changing baseball. The pitch is saving careers, perhaps even extending them, turning journeymen into shutdown relievers and restoring the dominance of aging All-Stars. It's the secret reason why the game's power balance has shifted from the hitter to the pitcher. The pitch screams toward the hitter with the speed and the spin of a fastball and on a plane as flat as a vinyl LP and then, just as it begins to cross the plate, the ball darts like a badminton birdie. "Your brain is telling you fastball," says Angels rightfielder Torii Hunter. "Then the ball breaks, and you're done."
The pitch is the cut fastball—the cutter—and it has ignited a quiet revolution, from Philadelphia, where the Phillies' brotherhood of aces has adopted it as its signature weapon; to Texas, where an overachieving Rangers pitching staff rode the pitch all the way to last year's World Series; to Anaheim, where a veteran with a waning fastball has taken the pitch and turned himself into a Cy Young candidate virtually overnight. "A couple years ago I didn't even throw it, and now I have no idea where I'd be without it," says Angels righthander Dan Haren. "Every pitcher who throws it falls in love with it."
The pitch is not only why the Yankees' Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer ever, but also why the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, Roy Halladay, is having one of his most dominant seasons, at age 34. The pitch is why virtual unknowns such as Cleveland's Josh Tomlin, St. Louis's Jaime Garcia and Tampa Bay's James Shields are blooming into All-Stars—and All-Stars such as Haren, Philadelphia's Cole Hamels and Boston's Josh Beckett are as good as, or better than, ever.
"When I broke in [in 1999], I could count on one hand the number of guys who threw it," says Cardinals rightfielder Lance Berkman. "Everyone knows about Mariano. Al Leiter threw a cutter. Darren Oliver had a little cutter, too. Now it's like I can count on one hand the guys who don't have it."
"In the '70s it was the slider," says Indians team president Mark Shapiro. "In the '80s [pitching coach and manager] Roger Craig came up with a split-finger fastball, and then Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling took off with it. Now it's the cutter."
A pitch that didn't exist in the mainstream baseball lexicon two decades ago has become the It Pitch, the most devastating weapon in the game. And now pitchers and hitters are racing to unlock the mystery of the cutter.
The cutter guru, the man who helped Halladay master his most devastating pitch, is firing baseballs at a sign on the outfield wall at San Jose Municipal Stadium, home of the Class A San Jose Giants, a few hours before the start of a game. Before he blew out his arm in 1977, 10 games into his major league career, Gil Patterson was a can't-miss Yankees prospect. (Carl Yastrzemski called the righthander the best young pitcher he'd ever seen.) Thirty-four years later Patterson, now the A's minor league pitching coordinator—silver-haired and trim at 55—can still bring it. When he throws a hard four-seam fastball into the wall—thwack!—heads turn in the stands. "You can teach people a cutter much easier than you can a curveball and a slider and a major league diabolical sinker," Patterson says in between throws. He holds the baseball with a classic four-seam fastball grip, then moves his grip slightly off center, squeezes his middle finger on the ball until it turns pink, and winds up and fires another pitch that scuds left just before it hits the wall.
This is the cutter, though to the untrained eye it may look like a slider—the difference is often subtle, though they are two clearly distinct pitches. A slider breaks horizontally but also has downward movement. A cutter moves mostly laterally. "The difference is that the cutter is thrown harder, it doesn't have as much depth and the break is much shorter," Patterson says. "If someone's throwing [his fastball] at 90, their slider should be at 82. Their cutter should be at 86, about a four-mile-per-hour difference."
Patterson throws another pitch—thwack!—and says, "I'd love to see what Goose Gossage's velocity was on his slider. You look back at guys like Lee Smith, Bret Saberhagen, Steve Busby, Dave Stieb, and they threw their sliders pretty hard. Maybe today those are cutters."
No one knows who threw the first cutter. But though the term cut fastball only became part of the baseball vernacular within the last 15 years, a handful of players have been throwing the pitch for generations. (As referred to in the 2004 book The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, longtime major league outfielder and Yale coach Ethan Allen, in a 1953 instructional book, wrote, "[A pitcher] threw a fastball that was unique because it slid or broke like a curve. It was somewhat like a fastball, but he threw over the side of the index finger to a greater extent. This off-center pressure caused the break.") Rivera, who stumbled upon the pitch while warming up before a game in 1997, made the cutter famous, though it didn't lead immediately to a wave of imitators. "Mariano's a Hall of Famer mainly due to that one pitch, and I think people have viewed his mastery as a spectacular skill that he alone has," says Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine. "It wasn't until later, when middle-of-the-rotation starters and normal relievers had effectiveness throwing it, that you saw the wide-scale adoption of it."