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It started with Greg Maddux in the 1990s. The righthander never won a strikeout title and had 200 strikeouts in a season only once, but he did strike out more batters than any righty in National League history, and he did it with a pitching style that changed the game. Maddux could make his fastball move either into a hitter or away from a hitter on both sides of the plate, known as the scissor effect. A lefthanded hitter, for instance, would see a pitch near the inside corner and be unsure whether it was going to continue to veer at him (a cutter) or away from him and catch a piece of the plate (a two-seamer). "It wasn't real popular then because you weren't supposed to throw lefties down and in," Maddux says. "It's hard to read the spin on those two pitches, one going in and one going away from you."
Maddux broke other long-held taboos: He threw changeups and breaking balls on the inside part of the plate to righthanders (so-called front-door breaking balls). Soon his scissor effect became the gold standard in pitching. The next pitcher to popularize the style was Roy Halladay, who arrived in the big leagues as a traditional power pitcher (an overhand four-seam fastball and curveball) before reinventing himself in 2001 as a turbo-powered version of Maddux. He adopted a low three-quarters release point to sink and cut the ball on both sides of the plate. He became the best pitcher in the game, with a kind of mastery that people wanted to copy.
"I actually call it the Halladification of pitching," says Tampa Bay pitching coach Jim Hickey. "This guy takes the 18-inch plate and does the far-side two-seamer and the front-side cutter and turns it into something about 24 inches wide. I know a lot of our guys imitated a lot of what he did."
David Price is one such pitcher. He arrived in the majors full time in 2009 as a lefthanded version of the young Halladay. He threw a four-seam fastball about three quarters of the time and mixed in a decent slider. Then he began his transformation into the typical postmodern pitcher: He added a changeup, learned the two-seam fastball from Chad Qualls, then a Rays reliever, in the middle of the '10 season ("The day before a start," Price says, "and I haven't stopped throwing it since") and learned the cutter last year from teammate James Shields, who is now with the Royals. Price's strikeout percentage has increased every year since '09, and he won the AL Cy Young Award last year.
"Now maybe somebody is imitating David Price," Hickey said. "He throws backdoor cutters and front-door two-seamers. He doesn't just sit there and shove 95 miles an hour, which he could. He could win games throwing 95 percent four-seam fastballs. And he has.
"But the single most important thing is the cutter. Even 10 years ago hardly anybody threw it. It was almost a gimmick pitch. And now it's a staple. Most guys have one, and they throw it to both sides of the plate."
The cutter became popular because it is easy to learn and to throw, is easier to command than a curveball or a slider and has just enough movement to move away from the barrel of a bat. "I hold it the same way I threw the slider before and then I just throw it like a fastball," Price said. "If it doesn't cut, it's going to be a fastball. Hopefully it's 92 or 93 and goes down or something like that. My hand is exactly the same as when I throw both pitches. I just have a little more pressure on my middle finger [on the cutter]."
The cutter is not a swing-and-miss pitch like a high-velocity four-seam fastball, a roundhouse curve or a sharp-breaking slider. But its popularity has contributed to the increase in strikeouts because it complicates the areas and movement a hitter has to cover when behind in the count. A study by baseballanalytics.org found that while cutters accounted for only 5.1% of third strikes last season, that number represented a 342% increase since 2008. The study found that pitchers are throwing more two-strike cutters over the plate, but batters are swinging at them less often, an indication of the camouflage effect of the pitch.
"The backdoor cutter with two strikes is basically a strikeout-looking pitch," Hickey says. "The hitter sees ball, ball, ball, ball, ball—and then at the last instant it becomes a strike and it's too late. When that happens once or twice, now you're swinging at fastballs that are six inches off the plate because you're not sure if they're going to come back or not."
Fifteen years after Maddux won the last of his four ERA titles and had his only 200-strikeout season, carving up both sides of the plate with late movement unlike anybody in baseball, the generation that grew up watching his mastery is filling out pitching staffs all over baseball to make the scissor effect standard operating procedure.