Gio Gonzalez reported to Yankees camp on Thursday afternoon and threw his first bullpen with the team. Interestingly, it was also reported he has a new weapon in his arsenal this year -- a cutter. We obviously haven’t seen how Gonzalez plans to utilize this pitch in games just yet, but we do know some age-related decline has started to take its toll on Gonzalez’s stat-line. Fortunately enough, the Yankees also employ two other pitchers who frequently utilize cutters. If Gio Gonzalez can utilize his cutter similar to CC Sabathia and James Paxton, he could stave off another decline year.
Sabathia represents the blueprint when it comes to staving off physical decline. When the big lefty’s fastball cased to be effective against major-league hitters, he solicited the help of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte to learn and refine a cutter, which Sabathia has made one of his primary pitches since 2016:
As you can see, CC essentially replaced his four seam fastball with his cutter, and he’s found almost immediate success with it. In 2015, hitters slugged .467 off of his fastball, but only .367 off of his cutter in 2016. In 2018, Sabathia was fourth in the league at generating soft contact. Only Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale, and Noah Syndergaard put up better rates than Sabathia.
The reason Sabathia is able to generate such soft contact is because he uses his cutter up and in on right-handed hitters and compliments it with changeups down and away. For lefties, he goes with his sinker low and in and uses a slider low and away. Altogether, the combination of pitches has allowed Sabathia to remain effective for much longer than initially seemed likely.
Conversely, Gonzalez’s batted ball profile shows he did a relatively poor job at limiting hard contact this past season. Both right- and left-handed hitters saw an increase in slugging percentage against Gonzalez. Just having a cutter could definitely help bring those numbers down, but he might not find the same success as Sabathia by sequencing pitches precisely like him.
Unlike Sabathia, Gonzalez’s worst pitch was his sinker, not his fastball. Hitters slugged .454 off of Gonzalez’s sinker last year, so he could benefit from moving away from that pitch while using his new cutter a bit more. This means Gonzalez might want to follow James Paxton’s lead when it comes to employing his new cutter.
Paxton definitely leans on his cutter when facing right-handed hitters, but he throws it to lefties too. About 80% of his cutters went to right-handers last year. For comparison, about 95% of Sabathia’s cutters were to righties. Paxton also likes to throw his cutter down and in on righties (down and away to lefties), which allows him to use it as a put away pitch in addition to a groundball generator. It also allows him to work his fastball up in the zone, which helps fight against the disciples of the launch angle.
Since Gonzalez still has an effective fastball, he shouldn’t stop throwing that pitch. Instead, it could be more worthwhile to follow Paxton’s lead and use his cutter down and in on righties while saving the upper part of the zone for fastballs. Ultimately, having a cutter should help out Gonzalez going forward. Right now, he’s a legitimate four-pitch pitcher, and adding a fifth one, while dialing back his sinker a little bit, will only make him more versatile. If he finds that his cutter is pretty decent, he can use it in a number of different ways. Luckily, he’s got a couple of really solid teammates on hand should he need any help.