Nathan Eovaldi had a nice start to his Miami Marlins career on Saturday, and he will looking to make more waves this Thursday on his next start against the Atlanta Braves. But on his first start against the San Diego Padres, a number of Marlins watchers saw something of relative interest with regards to Eovaldi's arsenal: there seemed to be a cutter present.
Prior to this season, no one had spoken of a cutter before with Eovaldi, so it seems a little odd to see an anomalous set of pitches that Pitch F/X classified as a cutter suddenly appearing in Eovaldi's arsenal in his first Marlins game. Given the concerns that Eovaldi has regarding his pitch selection beyond his fastball and slider, perhaps the addition of a cutter could be a good thing. But is this a true cutter attempt or merely an anomaly of the Pitch F/X classification system? Given that Eovaldi may have a future in the team's starting rotation, this question may be worth investigating.
The Appearance of Pitches
The one way we can use Pitch F/X data to determine the identification of a pitch is to look at three different categories of the pitch: its horizontal and vertical break and its velocity. In terms of horizontal and vertical break, we can look at a chart that measures the two against each other and see where those pitches land. Generally speaking, each pitch has an area in that chart in which it generally lands. For a right-handed pitcher, here is an example of what a horizontal versus vertical break chart would look like, with the x-axis representing the horizontal break and the y-axis the vertical (chart courtesy of friend of Fish Stripes and now analyst for the Houston Astros Mike Fast from this article):
As you can tell, the cutter and slider have overlapping regions of break, so often times sliders can be confused by the Pitch F/X system as cutters and vice versa. The confusion of sliders is especially prevalent if a pitcher's velocity is high enough that his slider is the high 80's or even touching 90 mph. Note, also, the location of a typical two- or four-seam fastball, with its high vertical "upward" break and heavy break in towards the hands of a right-handed batter (consider this chart in terms of a "catcher's view" of the plate, with right-handed hitters on the left side of the chart).
What does this have to do with Eovaldi's pitches? Well, given what we know is the general location of a cutter, we can see why Eovaldi's 11 pitches were classified as such.Here was Eovaldi's chart from his last start, courtesy of FanGraphs.
The circled portion indicates the "cutters" that he threw. Based on what we know of the horizontal and vertical break of cutters, those seem to be appropriately placed. Only one of the so-called cutters is off the mark (the one that is not within the red circle) in terms of break. Still, there also is a fastball within our circle of cutters, so how can we tell the difference between these pitches?
Obviously, Eovaldi's fastball is among the fastest in baseball among starters, so it should be easy to use pitch velocity to further determine the identity of these pitches. Here is a table of the pitch velocity, horizontal, and vertical break of the so-called cutters Eovaldi threw and that one fastball within that group.
|Eovaldi, Pitches||Velocity (mph)||Horiz. Break (in)||Vert. Break (in)|
|Cutter 11 (out of circle)||90.0||-2.2||6.6|
|Fastball (in circle)||92.4||-1.3||10.0|
That one fastball was not at such a drastically different velocity that it could have been easily determined as a cutter or fastball, but the remaining pitches were very clearly in the cutter' range of velocity around the 90 mph region. In comparison, the low for Eovaldi's "true" fastballs was 91.3 mph, and the majority were a clear three to four mph greater than the average cutter velocity. It could easily be said that Eovaldi threw up to 12 cutters in terms of classification in his last start.
What about differentiating his cutters from sliders? At least from this start, his sliders were significantly more obvious. Each pitch classified as a slider sat in the mid 80's in velocity and broke heavily away from right-handers, as most sliders are oft to do. With Eovaldi's rogue cutters in the 89-90 mph range, there is almost doubt that they were different pitches.
Was Eovaldi known to throw a cutter in the past? I've scoured some of the major prospect sources and have found nothing regarding a cutter being used, though Marc Hulet of FanGraphs did say in his top 10 prospects list from before this season that Eovaldi's slider occasionally touches 90 mph (perhaps that was out of the bullpen). Chris Blessing of Bullpen Banter discussed a quick scouting report of his pitches that did not once mention a cutter.
In terms of scouting, this pitch seems like a scant enough offering that few people have actually watched it closely, perhaps confusing it as another fastball. But in terms of Pitch F/X, it seems he threw some pitches that were classified as cutters last season. However, some of these appear very clearly to be mislabeled; looking at the overview of those pitches on FanGraphs, you can see that the maximum velocity in one of those 31 pitches was 94.7 mph while the minimum velocity was 85.6, indicating that they might have been confused with a four-seam fastball and a slider respectfully. Looking at the actual movement and velocity of the individual pitches from 2011, I would say that 27 of those 31 pitches could be reasonably classified as "cutters."
What Does It Bring?
What does the cutter bring to the table if Eovaldi is indeed throwing it? Well, here is a 2009 article on Beyond the Box Score regarding the dominance of the cutter. Sky Kalkman, at the time, figured that the cutter brought the best of both breaking pitches and fastballs because of its consistent placement in the zone and its movement.
The cutter, however, comes with the best of both worlds. It's thrown in the zone as often as pure fastballs, but generates more whiffs (although not as many as the other three pitches), and isn't hit as hard. It appears, then, that it's a jack of all trades pitch, able to be pumped over the plate repeatedly without strong repercussions.
The cutter's movement at its velocity is the key to its effectiveness. You can tell from its place in the horizontal versus vertical break chart that it mostly moves laterally and away from same-handed hitters compared to the fastball. The advantage there is that it has fastball velocity but tailing akin to that of a slider, making it sound like a pitch more suitable against same-handed hitters. Research into the platoon splits of pitches in 2009 by Hardball Times's Max Marchi yielded similar results.
Then again, there is the idea that cutters can be used to "saw off" opposite-handed hitters, and that advantage may actually diminish the platoon split of the pitch. Dave Allen of Baseball Analysts showed that the cutter has little or no platoon effect, and it is likely for that reason.
Why is this important to Eovaldi? Eovaldi is well known for having a "flat" fastball, though the velocity is what has brought it to the big leagues. As a result, hitters can probably see it better than fastballs from guys like Josh Johnson which have better movement. To be able to complement that heavy 94 mph fastball with a darting cutter would be a big advantage to Eovaldi in terms of fooling hitters. It would also give him an almost neutral weapon to use against left-handers since his changeup is such a weak offering.
There is no guarantee that this pitch even exists, and the fact that it has only shown up a grand total of maybe 40 times in his 1636 pitches in the majors shows that it is not something he is yet comfortable running out consistently. But if pitching coach Randy St. Claire can help him develop it into a decent pitch, it would be another weapon in his fight to avoid the bullpen and be a reliable starter against righty and lefty bats.