Much was made this spring of Phil Hughes working on improving his changeup. In fact, many referred to him as a two pitch pitcher (fastball and curve) who needed the change to make it through an MLB lineup multiple times. The cutter that Phil used last season was largely ignored as being a major factor in helping Hughes start at this level, likely because it is seen as a fastball variant that is too similar to the fastball to help in that regard. However, through two starts, the cutter is proving to be Phil’s favorite off-speed pitch and has remained just as effective as it was in the bullpen.
[image title="Picture 3" size="full" id="16933" align="center" linkto="full" ]
As you can see from the table (courtesy of Texas Leaguers), Phil has used the cutter (FC) about 30 percent of the time, and is throwing it for strikes with astounding frequency (69.8%). Batters are swinging and missing at a healthy 12.7% rate, leading to 16 strikeouts to this point. Furthermore, Fangraphs’ pitch type values data shows that the cutter has been Phil’s most effective pitch to this point. What makes it so effective?
I think the similarity to the fastball actually helps in this instance. The pitches are fairly similar in terms of break and velocity, such that the hitter may not pick up the pitch type until it is too late. Essentially, both pitches play up because the hitter is kept guessing. Let’s look at the vertical and horizontal break on the pitches:
[image title="Picture 4" size="full" id="16934" align="center" linkto="full" ]
The first image shows the horizontal break. Coming out of the hand, the fastball and cutter look the same, but begin to diverge at a point about 25 feet from the hitter, where the cutter begins to break to the left. The second image shows the vertical break, and displays that at that same point, the cutter also drops a bit, such that the hitter needs to react to a pitch that looked like a fastball but is now tailing down and to the left. The cutter is particularly helpful against lefties, as it is coming in at them and tying them up.
The cutter was an effective pitch for Phil as a reliever in 2009, and I see no reason to believe that it will not serve him equally well as a starter in 2010. Phil Hughes now has a third pitch. It is simply not the one everybody expected.
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