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Investigating Gerrit Cole’s and Luis Severino’s new pitch

Breaking down how the cutter can become the latest weapon in the pair’s already potent arsenals.

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MLB: FEB 15 Spring Training - Yankees Workout Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the most exciting developments of an otherwise stagnant start to the Yankees’ 2022 season is the amount of innovation shown by Matt Blake and the rest of the pitching coaches in trying to give their pitches every advantage possible. Blake is at the forefront of pitch design, something Lindsey Adler of The Athletic explored in detail during her investigation into the new “whirly” slider being taught to many on the pitching staff. And now it looks like Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino are the latest beneficiaries, with the pair incorporating a cutter into their repertoires.

There is perhaps no individual pitch more intimately tied to a single franchise than the cutter is to the Yankees. Mariano Rivera built his Hall of Fame legacy almost exclusively on that one pitch. Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia extended their careers thanks to the pitch, and I wrote last year how the pair were passing down their knowledge of the pitch to Jordan Montgomery. Perhaps Cole and Severino can add another chapter to the pitch’s storied history in New York.

Granted, the cutter is not a completely new pitch for Cole or Severino. Dan Martin of the New York Post has written about how Cole threw a cutter at UCLA, but scrapped the pitch after joining the Pirates. Similarly, Severino has some experience with the pitch, throwing it 60 times between 2015 and 2021. However, this is the first time we’ve seen either pitcher make a concerted effort to feature the pitch as a legitimate offering in their big league careers.

Let’s take a look at some that they’ve thrown so far.

Here’s Cole striking out Bo Bichette on a 1-2 cutter in the sixth well off the outside edge of the plate:

Severino’s cutter also induced some whiffs. In this instance he collects the sword from Alejandro Kirk on a perfectly located 2-1 pitch down and away in the second:

As cool as it is to see Cole and Severino gathering swings and misses on the cutter, I was equally impressed by the batted ball results. It appears the cutter has a dual use as a groundball machine.

Cole induced a weak dribbler from George Springer on this third inning 1-0 cutter on the corner down and away:

A game later, Severino also got Springer to ground out weakly, this time to short, on an 0-1 first inning cutter away. You’ll notice how Springer was out in front on both this swing and in the previous clip, something I will return to in a bit.

Below, I have included every cutter that Cole and Severino have thrown across their first three starts.

Cole vs. Red Sox 4/8:

Courtesy of Statcast

Cole vs Blue Jays 4/13:

Courtesy of Statcast

Cole vs Tigers 4/19:

Courtesy of Statcast

Severino vs. Red Sox 4/9:

Courtesy of Statcast

Severino vs. Blue Jays 4/14:

Courtesy of Statcast

Severino vs. Tigers 4/20:

Courtesy of Statcast

Instantly, you notice an encouraging mix of swinging and called strikes, foul balls, and groundouts. It’s also clear that the pair are targeting their cutters gloveside down (down and away from righties, down and in on lefties), though I reckon it is a pitch almost exclusively reserved for righties — Cole has thrown none to lefties and Severino only a pair to southpaws. The cherry on top: of the 59 combined cutters thrown by Cole and Severino, only one has gone for a hit!

Based on these early returns, what might the ideal usage of the cutter for Cole and Severino? When I first realized the pair was throwing the pitch, my mind turned to two thoughts. The first was to look up the usage patterns of the two most preeminent cutter throwers in the league: Corbin Burnes and Emmanuel Clase. Second, I remembered an article written by Ben Clemens of FanGraphs investigating pitchers who threw both a four-seamer and a sinker.

Given Burnes’ and Clase’s success with the pitch, I wondered if the pair’s situational deployment of the pitch might serve as guideposts for Cole and Severino. However, looking at the cutters Cole and Severino have thrown thus far, it does not appear they are attempting mirror cutter strategy used by Burnes or Clase.

Here is Burnes’ cutter heat map:

Courtesy of FanGraphs

And Clase’s:

Courtesy of FanGraphs

For Burnes and Clase, the cutter is used as their fastball, the same way Cole and Severino throw their four-seamers. Think of how Mo used his cutter, his primary (well, sole really) offering, and for all intents and purposes a moving fastball. Burnes and Clase intentionally throw their cutters for strikes — Burnes’ has a 54 percent called strike rate while Clase’s is at 44 percent. Cole and Severino ... not so much. Cole’s cutter owns a 37 percent called strike rate and Severino’s even lower at 18 percent. And you can see from the game pitch maps above that there is a concerted effort to locate the pitch off the plate away to righties.

That brings me to the FanGraphs article. For those of you who haven’t read Clemens’ fastball piece, I highly recommend it. His conclusion basically boils down to encouraging increased sinker use against groundball hitters and increased four-seam use against flyball hitters. What if we were to adapt this to Cole’s and Severino’s cutters? As I mentioned earlier, the pitch has already proven effective at inducing groundballs. Applying Clemens’ logic, might it make sense for Cole and Severino to defer to the four-seamer against flyball hitters while upping cutter usage against groundball hitters? Again, their seeming hesitance to throw the cutter in the zone indicates that this might not be the intended use for the new pitch.

So, if they aren’t going to deploy the cutter in the zone for called strikes nor as an alternative to the four-seamer against groundball hitters, where does that leave us? I’d like you to take a look at these overlays from the season-opening series against the Red Sox.

Look at how long those two pitches tunnel together on their respective paths toward the plate! No wonder Bogaerts was fooled into such a weak hack on both occasions. At roughly 93 mph, Cole’s and Severino’s cutters are essentially harder, shorter, sharper, later-breaking versions of their sliders. Thus, it appears the pair are using the cutter as an out-and-out third breaking pitch, rather than as a variation on the fastball.

I like this strategy. I had mentioned that Springer was way out in front of both cutters he hit for grounders. The cutter’s spin more closely resembles a four-seamer than a slider, so hitters are more likely to identify fastball out of the hand. Not only will their timing be off, but their bat paths will travel over the top of the late-breaking cutter, leading to a topped ball if not a whiff altogether.

Finally, the cutter gives Cole and Severino a fallback breaking ball option if they can’t get the feel for the slider on a given night. As Severino mentioned in the postgame presser following his latest start, the cutter prevented hitters from sitting pure fastball-changeup after it became apparent early on that the slider “wasn’t there when [he] needed it.”

I’m not going bore you with the stats from Cole’s and Severino’s cutters, because frankly the sample size is too small to yield reliable results let alone draw any meaningful conclusions. However, we can look at the preliminary returns from the pair’s foray into cutterdom and attempt to tease out patterns of usage from count to location. And I have to say, I like what I see.