Zack Greinke and the Cutter Through Three Starts

Apr 18, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke (13) pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2nd inning at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE

Usually there's a big story throughout the Spring Training about some new special thing that's going to improve everybody and the team's going to be great and it's going to be awesome. It used to be contact lenses and LASIK surgery and new workout programs, and lately it's been the cutter. The glorious cutter. And there's a lot of evidence that says the cutter is a very worthwhile pitch to learn, improving performance in ground balls generated as well as strikeouts, which are both very good things.

Nobody hopped on the cutter bandwagon this spring like Zack Greinke. Just about every game he seemed to emphasize that he was working on the pitch. Through the first four games he's thrown 56 of them, or 20% of his total pitches thrown in those games. His current pitch distribution looks something like this.

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As it's pretty clear to see, overall his frequency of total fastballs thrown-- when you include 4-seamers, 2-seam sinkers, and cutters-- has gone up, but that non-cutter chunk has gone down. That's meant that he's thrown fewer of his off-speed pitches this year. Currently he's thrown 50% fastballs and 21% cutters. That total of 71% is well above the 60% career and 56% he threw last year. So to summarize this paragraph, his amount of 2 and 4 seamers thrown is down, but number of total fastballs including cutters is up quite a bit.

Obviously it's very tough to tell what, exactly a heavier reliance on the cutter is going to mean for Greinke, but I'd have a tough time convincing myself it's not a positive development. It seems that though Greinke pitched awfully well last year, when he had problems they came from a somewhat stubborn inability to work outside the zone, ever. He suffered some terrible luck in terms of how few fly balls he gave up and how many home runs he gave up, but there's no doubt that he made plenty of mistakes in the center of the zone that were taken advantage of. Can the cutter make him more efficient? He already did set a career high in GB% last season at 47%, and through 3 games a full 50% of the balls in play against him were hit on the ground.

The cutter itself may be helpful, though it's mostly speculative through only 3 games. In terms of run value, it's been above average compared to other cutters around the league. Of all his pitches so far, the cutter is:

  • most likely to be swung at by opposing batters
  • most likely to be fouled off
  • least likely to be swung at and missed
  • 2.5 times as likely to produce a ground ball than a fly ball

Generally, a pitch that doesn't get swung at and missed a lot is a bad pitch, but I can see how this could help Greinke. I hate the idea of "pitching to contact" (as does Greinke, judging by past quotes). But I can certainly see how having a ground ball-inducing pitch that keeps hitters from keying on the straight fastballs could be a big help, and might help him avoid the home run problems he had last year. And with 0 homers allowed through three starts, that mission is a success so far.

All I can realistically conclude right now is that Greinke is comfortable with the new cutter. This is a pitch he has never thrown this year in his professional career, and he's already throwing it more than any of his off-speed pitches, and he's throwing it for strikes. He hasn't made a mistake that has hurt him with it yet. A lot of pitching coaches seem to think that it's better to focus on throwing 3 or maybe 4 pitches effectively, but by all accounts Greinke has mastered his 5 pitch arsenal and it certainly cannot hurt to add another pitch, as long as he can maintain the control on all of them. The early evidence indicates that he can. If he hadn't given up all those bloop hits in an inning in Chicago we'd be talking about a really promising start for him right now. If we're going to have the ace have problems, is a lot better to have him giving up sporadic weak singles than massive home runs.

*All data from the excellent TexasLeaguers.com and BrooksBaseball.com, as well as Fangraphs

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