Blue Jays in Focus: 2016 could be the year of the cutter

Apr 10, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marco Estrada (25) throws a pitch during the first inning in a game against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 10, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marco Estrada (25) throws a pitch during the first inning in a game against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /

Blue Jays starters Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ featured different velocities and usage rates with their cutters in week one of the MLB season

Roberto Osuna isn’t the only member of the Blue Jays pitching staff working on his cutter in 2016. In their first starts of the season, both Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ made notable adjustments from their 2015 version of the pitch.

For Estrada, the cutter has been a work in progress since the beginning of last year which he finally debuted on May 16th against the Houston Astros.

From that point on, Brooks Baseball data shows that the right-hander threw 262 cutters, good for 9.59% of his total pitches and an average of 1.64 cutters thrown per inning.

Estrada’s excellent Sunday debut against the Boston Red Sox, however, where he threw 7.0 innings of shutout ball with eight strikeouts, saw him throw 16 cutters (17.58% of his pitches). As you’d expect, the majority of these cutters were called instead of fastballs.

Estrada - Brooks Baseball
Estrada - Brooks Baseball /

The velocity on Estrada’s cutter was noticeably different, also, so while this sample size of one outing is far too small to draw any longterm conclusions from, a conscious change in how the pitch is thrown (not just how often) signals to me that Estrada will be leaning more on this cutter.

His 16 cutters from Sunday had an average release velocity of 86.70 MPH, well down from his average of 88.41 MPH in 2015. As you’d expect, this slight dip in raw speed allowed Estrada to increase both the vertical and horizontal movement on the pitch.

With Estrada’s fastball also just under his velocity from last season and the 32-year-old still not 100% following a brief DL stint (back), it is worth monitoring whether this cutter velocity climbs over his coming starts. As it is right now, however, this pitch – along with his great changeup – will help Estrada to stay strong against left-handed hitting.

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Lefties went just 2-for-10 against Estrada on Sunday, and in 2015 posted a season-long batting line of .203 / .264 / 374. This produced an opponent OPS nearly identical to his numbers against righties.

On to J.A. Happ, who has seen a different change in his cutter this season.

As a member of the Seattle Mariners for the first four months of 2015, Happ threw his cutter 13.1 % of the time, a number that climbed slightly to 15.5% after being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In Pittsburgh, Happ took off under the tutelage of renowned pitching coach Ray Searage.

In his first start of the season, Happ threw 18 cutters (20.22% of his pitches), but unlike Estrada, Happ added a good bit of velocity to his.

During his time with Pittsburgh last season (excluding time with Mariners), Happ’s cutter averaged a release velocity of 84.6 MPH. Last Wednesday in Tampa Bay, that same cutter was averaging a release velocity of 87.4 MPH, nearly 3.0 full MPH faster. Happ’s fastball and sinker – the latter of which he was credited with using much more frequently than normal on Wednesday – also experienced a bump in velocity, but the cutter’s (shown below in red) was more pronounced.

Happ - Brooks Baseball
Happ - Brooks Baseball /

So, why’s this matter? For starters, it’s the combination of an increased cutter usage and a noticeable velocity change that makes these two instances worth nothing. One of those two factors could be brushed off as a small-sample outlier this early in the season if they stood alone, but having them occur together is a sign that these are at least semi-conscious changes.

Beyond just having a weapon against hitters of the opposite hand, these cutters are at their best when they are producing weak contact. Just ask Mariano Rivera and the graveyard of splintered bats that littered his infields.

With Happ’s link to Searage this isn’t a surprise, as the Pirates are brilliant at forcing soft contact from their opponents. It’s also important for Happ to continue developing in this sense, as his 9.6 K/9 with the Pirates is well above his career average and more than likely unsustainable. The same goes for Estrada who did very well to avoid hard contact in his breakout 2015.

Searage isn’t the only Pittsburgh Pirates link here, either. There’s also Russell Martin, who overlapped with Searage for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Now that Dioner Navarro is no longer working almost exclusively with Estrada, we could see evident changes in his game based on the pitch-calling of Martin alone.