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Yankees who throw cutters Part II: Nestor Cortes and Lucas Luetge

Yesterday we talked about Gerrit Cole’s and Luis Severino’s cutters. Today, let’s investigate those thrown by Nestor Cortes and Lucas Luetge

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New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The cutter is making a comeback in the Bronx. Yesterday, I looked at how Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino have added the pitch to their repertoires. The early results look promising, and there are signs that it can turn into a real weapon as the pair grow more comfortable throwing it. Today, I’d like to turn to two other Yankees pitchers who have embraced the cutter — starter Nestor Cortes (who continued to deploy it with excellent results today) and reliever Lucas Luetge — and compare and contrast their usage of the pitch with how Cole and Severino are choosing to deploy it.

First, let’s take a look at some video. Back on April 17th, Cortes struck out Chris Owings looking on a 1-2 backdoor cutter in the bottom of the fifth:

Earlier that game, Cortes fanned Ryan Mountcastle swinging on 3-2 cutter in the bottom of the third. You can see how the pitch’s location and velocity had Mountcastle tied up and out in front:

Now in this clip from April 9th, Luetge caught Trevor Story looking in the top of the sixth on a 2-2 cutter just off outside corner that Kyle Higashioka framed beautifully:

Finally, we have Luetge striking out Austin Hays swinging on an 0-2 cutter in off the plate in the bottom of the eighth on April 17th:

For reference, here is every single cutter the pair have thrown this season:

Cortes vs. Blue Jays, 4/12

Cortes vs. Orioles, 4/17

Luetge vs. Red Sox, 4/9

Luetge vs. Red Sox, 4/10

Luetge vs. Blue Jays, 4/14

Luetge vs. Orioles, 4/15

Luetge vs. Orioles, 4/17

Luetge vs. Tigers, 4/21

I count 6 total hits out of 124 combined cutters thrown through the end of play on April2 2nd. In contrast, there’s an abundance of called strikes on backdoor cutters, whiffs on cutters in the zone and chases on ones out of the zone, and a healthy number of foul balls, groundballs, and popups.

Unlike Cole and Severino, Cortes and Luetge have each thrown enough cutters to allow us to feel somewhat confident when looking at the pitch metrics. Luetge’s cutter has the highest spin rate of any cutter in baseball while Cortes’ sits in 40th place. Cortes’ exhibits the 11th-most horizontal movement of any cutter in MLB, with Luetge’s the 14th-most, while both sit in the top half of the league in terms of vertical movement. As a result, Cortes’ cutter grades out as the sixth-best cutter by Statcast’s Run Value metric while Luetge’s places 15th.

It’s immediately evident from the videos that Cortes’ and Luetge’s cutters are wildly different versions than the ones thrown by Cole and Severino. While Cole and Severino throw theirs in the low-to-mid-90s with short, sharp, late breaking action, Cortes and Luetge throw theirs in the mid-to-upper-80s with substantial side-to-side sweeping action.

But it’s not just in velocity and movement profile that the pitches differ. Cortes and Luetge deploy a completely divergent pitching philosophy with their cutters than do Cole and Severino. As I talked about yesterday, Cole and Severino’s cutters function more like breaking balls, whereas Cortes and Luetge’s more closely resemble breaking balls, but function as fastballs. It shows how the pitch can be equally effective thrown different ways, and that the Yankees are not using a one-size-fits-all approach with pitch design.

Whereas Cole and Severino throw cutters as if they were hard sliders that pair well off the four-seamer — and therefore rarely throw the pitch in the zone or when they’re behind in the count — Cortes and Luetge throw their cutters in any count and to all four quadrants of the zone. They use it to steal strikes early in the count, to induce weak contact, and to finish off hitters in two-strike counts.

For Luetge, the cutter is the hardest pitch in his arsenal, so it’s effectively a fastball that breaks gloveside. Cortes takes a slightly modified approach, still deploying the cutter as if it were a fastball, but pairing it with a four-seamer he throws an equal amount of the time. This is perhaps why we see slightly more off-balance swings on Cortes’ cutter — its spin resembles a four-seamer, causing hitters to get fooled by the diminished velocity and sweeping movement.

The thing that excites me most is the way the cutter complements the rest of the pitches in Cortes’ and Luetge’s arsenals, in particular their sliders. Both Cortes and Luetge are throwing the enhanced whirly version of the slider that Lindsey Adler of The Athletic talked about at the beginning of the month (Yankees fans: if you have a subscription, this article is a MUST-READ!). And based on the early returns, the cutter is the perfect pitch to pair with that sweeping style of slider.

Look how long the cutter and slider tunnel together toward the plate! They are virtually the same pitch for 60-70 percent of the travel time to home. By the time the ball has reached the decision point for the hitter, there’s still practically zero way to differentiate if it is a cutter or slider. What looks like a cutter out of the hand and most of the 60-feet-6 inches could wind up as a slider crossing home more than a foot away from where the hitter is expecting, and there’s just no time to react when the pitches mirror each other for so long. And that’s the beauty of the confidence that Cortes and Luetge have to throw their cutters in any situation to any location. The hitter has to keep the cutter in mind the whole at-bat — and when the slider finally does come, there’s not much they can do.

Nestor Cortes and Lucas Luetge have seen their stocks soar since coming to Yankees spring training in 2021 as non-roster invitees. Cortes went from DFA and outright candidate to anchoring the backend of the Bombers rotation while Luetge went from being out of the big leagues for six years to a trusted high leverage reliever in the Yankees bullpen. A lot of this can be chalked up to the trust the pair — and the broader Yankees pitching staff as a whole — have put into Matt Blake and the rest of the pitching coaches. The ability to modulate a single pitch into individually-tailored varieties based on a given pitcher’s strengths is something that will continue to work wonders for what is currently one of the top pitching units in baseball.