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Lester vs. Hamels: Battle of the Cutters

As Sports Illustrated's Albert Chen noted earlier this month, the rise in popularity of the cut fastball is one of baseball's biggest storylines this year. The pitch, thrown a few miles per hour slower than a conventional fastball, is an effective weapon against hitters on both sides of the plate. For instance, left-handed pitchers have a .307 Weighted On-Base Average against both lefty and righty hitters with the cutter, throwing strikes to lefties about 65 percent of the time and over 67 percent to righties. Overall, cutter usage among major league pitchers has steadily increased from 1.8 percent of all pitches thrown in 2008 to 5.2 percent in 2011.

Two lefties highlighting the cutter trend will take the mound in Philadelphia this afternoon, as Jon Lester faces Cole Hamels. Lester's cutter, thrown more than a quarter of the time, is holding hitters to a .214 wOBA that ranks fifth among starting pitchers. Hamels is throwing his cutter about 15 percent of the time and places a spot ahead of Lester with a .196 wOBA against. Lester and Hamels are both getting great results with the cutter, though they're using the pitch in different ways.

For Lester, the cutter is a chase pitch that he uses to rack up strikeouts. Look at the pitch frequency of Lester's cutter:

He's trying to get lefties to chase the pitch off the outside corner, while burying the cutter in on the hands of right-handed hitters. Lester has thrown about 38 percent of his cutters within the strike zone, compared to the 51 percent big league average. And hitters are obliging by chasing 41 percent of Lester's cutters thrown out of the zone, way above the 30 percent average. Lester's cutter is his go-to pitch in two-strike counts, and he has used the cutter to record 51 of his 100 strikeouts this season.

Hamels, on the other hand, places his cutter in the strike zone more often:

Fifty-one percent of Hamels' cutters have been thrown in the zone. Hamels isn't getting as many swings and misses as Lester -- his miss rate with the cutter is 19 percent, compared to Lester's 28 percent and the 20 percent average -- but he is getting more grounders than his Red Sox counterpart. Hamels has a 67 percent ground ball rate with the cutter, while Lester is getting grounders 53 percent and the average is 43 percent. In two-strike counts, Hamels still prefers his fastball and changeup, and he has used the cutter to get just 13 of his 108 punch outs.

Lester and Hamels use the cutter for different purposes, but the end result for the batter is usually the same: a return to the dugout.



Matusz's Zipless Fastball Hurting His Changeup

Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz has endured a trying 2011 season. The 24-year-old missed the first two months of the year with an intercostal strain. In five starts this June, Matusz has been thrashed for a 6.85 ERA in 22.1 innings. He has a middling 16-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and has surrendered seven home runs while posting the lowest ground ball rate (about 25 percent) among starting pitchers.

Since returning from his injury, Matusz's fastball has lacked zip. He threw his fastball at an average of 90.1 MPH over the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but he's averaging just 87.2 MPH with the pitch in 2011. His changeup, however, has basically stayed at the same velocity: 82 MPH from 2009-2010, and 82.3 MPH in 2011.

The speed differential between Matusz's fastball and changeup has dipped from a little over eight MPH to less than five MPH. And while his changeup previously had around two fewer inches of vertical break than his fastball, the two pitches are nearly indistinguishable in 2011.

Take a look at the pitch break and velocity of Matusz's fastball and changeup from 2009-2010:

There's a clear difference in speed between the two pitches, and the changeup dips a bit compared to the fastball. Now, look at the pitch break and velocity on Matusz's fastball and changeup this year:

If you can't tell the difference between the fastball and the changeup, that's exactly the point. There's little difference in either velocity or movement between the two pitches. It's hard to say that Matusz's changeup is actually, well, changing up from anything. Both pitches just look like slow fastballs.

Compared to 2009-2010, Matusz is getting far fewer misses and strikes with his fastball and changeup:


2009-2010: 14.5 Miss%, 64.8 Strike%

2011: 6.5 Miss%, 58.3 Strike%

League Average For LHP: 15.8 Miss%, 63.8 Strike%


2009-2010: 32.1 Miss%, 63.9 Strike%

2011: 23.4 Miss%, 61.7 Strike%

League Average for LHP: 28.7 Miss%, 62.4 Strike%

Oppponents have teed off on Matuz's fastball to the tune of a .314/.390/.600 line in 2011. Basically, every hitter turns into David Ortiz aganst Matusz' heat. For comparison, opponents batted  .278/.361/.439 against Matusz's fastball from 2009-2010, and the league average for lefty fastballs is .270/.352/.421.

His changeup has fared even worse: a .359/.432/.615 opponent line in 2011. That's Ted Williams-esque. Matusz's changeup had a .286/.322/.422 line from 2009-2010, and the league average is .254/.324/.389.

It's also not a stretch to think that Matusz's fastball/changeup problems have harmed the effectiveness of his mid-70s curveball. Hitters only have to tell the difference between Matusz's not-so-fast fastball, slightly slower change and a curveball that obviously breaks much differently:

You'd have to think that it would be easier for hitters to identify what Matusz is throwing (or guess right more often) with what looks like two different pitches instead of three (he has rarely thrown a slider this year). Batters have a .300/.300/.500 line this year against the curve. From 2009-2010, they hit .195/.205/.366. The league average is .217/.255/.315.

For Matusz's fastball/changeup combo to work, there needs to be some actual differentation between the two pitches. Otherwise, the lefty is just throwing a bunch of 80-something MPH batting practice pitches.


Justin Upton's Contact

Justin Upton of the Diamondbacks upped his batting average and OBP to new highs this season, and could be on the way to the best year of his young career.  The change that stands out most for Justin is his reduced strikeout rate.  In his first three full seasons, Justin struck out in between 23 and 29% of his plate appearances.  His three year average of 26% was the sixth highest in the majors.  In 2011, that's down to 17.5%.  That number is not low, but he's now in the middle of the pack rather than near the top.

Justin's strike zone judgment remained the same.  With two strikes, Upton swings at strikes:

Justin Upton, swing rate with two strikes, 2008-2010.Justin Upton, swing rate with two strikes, 2011.The heat maps are nearly identical in terms of inside/outside the zone.  In fact, it looks like Justin swings a bit more frequently this season.  The big difference comes in terms of contact:

Justin Upton, contact rate with two strikes, 2008-2010.Justin Upton, contact rate with two strikes, 2011.In the past, if the pitch was not inside, Justin had trouble hitting it.  He knew to swing, the swings just failed.  Now, he's handling the high and low outside pitches better, and fouling them off or putting the ball in play more.  He's playing this season as a 23 year old, and it appears he's learning to adjust, a good sign as he approaches his peak years.