Cole Hamels, So Cuttered

"Probably throwin' that lousy CUTTER!" -Mike "Madman" Missanelli - USA TODAY Sports

That's right, the subject is Cole Hamels, not Roy Halladay, although Doc is not irrelevant to it by any means. Once Doc hangs up his stethoscope and enters the Hall of Fame as a Phillie, the Commissioner who introduces him should remember to credit him for the teammates who benefited by his example. Kyle Kendrick, as pretty nearly everyone seems aware, is one of these. Another, in at least one regard, is probably Cole Hamels. When Doc arrived in Philly during the 2009-10 off-season, Hamels was coming off a difficult season and was ripe for, if not reinvention, then at least an enlarging of his capacity as a pitcher. As he has since acknowledged, he first took serious note of the cut fastball, or cutter, during Cliff Lee's first brief stay with Phillies in 2009. We all remember how that stay worked out, but the example of Lee's success with the pitch stuck. And then Halladay arrived. Doc had been in the process of partially reinventing himself as a pitcher for a number of years at that point by giving the cut fastball an ever larger place in his pitching repertoire (2004-2.5%; 2005-7.5%; 2006-19.3%; 2007-25.2%; 2008-33.2%; 2009-41.5%), as the two-seam sinking fastball receded as his primary pitch. It's unclear who actually taught Hamels the cutter -- Steve Carlton, Cliff Lee, and former closer John Wetteland have all been credited with providing input -- but it's not a stretch to say that Halladay's arrival catalyzed Hamels' decision to adopt it.

The cutter is essentially a four-seam fastball gripped off-center, with pressure applied to the spin-side finger. Although some pitchers throw a somewhat slower version with the addition of some wrist pronation, the true cutter is several MPH off fastball speed with a fastball release. The spin produced is meant to result in a late break that is less than that of a slider with more lateral and less dipping movement. This open-source graphic of a Roy Halladay cutter (opens in a new window) illustrates the eccentric release and resulting spin very nicely.

Mariano Rivera, from whom Halladay has been said to have learned his version, will ride the cutter into the Hall of Fame and is often credited with making the pitch fashionable. But in recent years a number of nay-sayers have complained about pitchers' "falling in love" with the pitch, neglecting their fastball, and in fact losing speed on their fastball as a result. There is no doubt that the measure of a cutter, as with any other pitch, is in the ability to control it and to use it appropriately. Kyle Kendrick had a significant lack of success in using the cutter as a replacement for an equally unsuccessful slider to remedy his inability to get left-hand batters out. There's nothing magical about the pitch for pitchers who throw it too predictably or simply don't throw it well enough.

2009 was not quite the disaster for Hamels that it was popularly portrayed as being. A slow start, a sore elbow early in the season, an ugly looking 4.32 season ERA, and a less-than-stellar World Series made it easy for critics to label the season a failure. Hamels himself played into the narrative by admitting that making the rubber chicken circuit after his and the team's magnificent 2008 World Series performance cut into his off-season conditioning. His much misunderstood comment about wishing he could wipe the season out before he had even finished it put an exclamation point on "failure." In fact, Hamels' FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, as Schmenkman recently pointed out, were all pretty much in line with 2008 numbers, and a career-high BABIP of .317 points to a certain amount of bad luck. Still, the 2010 season was ripe for change. Hamels has admitted that up to that point he was pretty much a two-pitch pitcher. In 2009, he had used his curveball a career low 10.5% of the time (10.1% by Pitch f/x). Never more than a mediocre pitch for him, the curve graded out at -1.5 by Fangraphs linear weighting per 100 pitches (in this case representing runs lost above average), and this figure doesn't account for the -4.23 value attributed to his "slider," a pitch Hamels probably did not even throw. Although Hamels' fastball velocity was in fact up in 2009 by comparison to 2008, it too graded out in minus territory.

The cutter is said to be a relatively easy pitch to learn, but mastering how to control it and how to use it took Hamels some time. A comparison of heat maps from 2010 and 2011 against left-hand batters shows his progress in both regards.



Notice how Hamels discovers how he wants to use the pitch against LHB's and how he centers on the location: in on the hands or on the trademark by pounding the inside part of the plate and, equally so, the inner off-the-plate zone from the hands downward, an area previously reserved almost exclusively for the fastball. In 2011 Hamels occasionally also used cutters away to left-handers (not often), something he barely attempted at all in 2010. Even a brief glance at these heatmaps of cutters to right-hand batters shows that they served a somewhat different function -- several functions, in fact.



One was to paint the outside part of the plate with pitches that look like outside fastballs, but broke in on corners. The other was to provide additional inward cutting movement to deceive the eye on trajectory within the zone. Notable about the distribution of pitches on the 2010 map (if you allow for the many more pitches to RHBs) is a diagonal pattern from top right to lower left similar to the one on the map for lefties. The 2011 map shows a pitcher much more confident in his ability to move the pitch around, even the dreaded "down-and-in" to opposite-handed batters. One thing Hamels has seldom done with the pitch, however, is bust it in on the hands of right-handers. For that, Hamels trusts only his fastball. Prior to 2010, Cliff Lee likewise favored his fastball to go inside to right-handers; from 2010 onward he has used fastball and cutter about equally for that purpose. This heatmap shows Roy Halladay's cutters in 2011. Halladay throws his cutter inside to same-handed batters much more readily than Hamels does.


Bill Baer documented at the end of the 2010 season the improvement in both location and result in the cutters Hamels threw in the second part of the season, including the playoffs, by comparison to those in the first. Of 23 cutters put in play, exactly one was a line drive. So 2011 didn't come out of nowhere; it was the culmination of a process that was ongoing through the first season when Hamels actually threw the pitch.

2010, the year Hamels adopted the cutter, was more successful than 2009. ERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA were personal bests to that point. Hamels' K rate entered one-strikeout-per-nine territory for the first time. A little-noticed positive, however, was a line-drive rate (16.7%) well below any previous year's, combined with a career-best batting-average-against of .194 by left-handers. These stats may be a smoking gun for the impact of his expanded repertoire. BIS and Pitch f/x have been sharply divergent on use of the fastball vs the cutter in all years since Hamels began using the latter, with Pitch f/x generally crediting more four-seam fastballs and (6-9%) fewer cutters, so citing absolute percentages is of questionable value. Hamels' cutter may have come slightly or significantly at the expense of his fastball in 2010, but both trackers agree that his already-declining resort to the curve diminished considerably by comparison to, say, 2008 (by about 5.5%), and in 2011 it was clearly the cutter that produced a 7-9% diminution in four-seamers. The effect seems to have been salutary. Although K and whiff rates on the fastball in 2010 rose only modestly (about 1%), balls-in-play dropped a significant 2.4%, about the same for left- and right-handed batters. Without a previous year for comparison, it's hard to gauge the success of the cutter for Hamels in 2010 or to be sure how much of his overall improvement can be attributed to the expansion of his pitch selection. What can be said is that 2011 continued to show advancement both overall and in the cutter itself as a pitch. K% rose another 5% for the cutter, and two of every three now registered a strike. The pitch value per 100 pitches jumped by a rate (-.49 > 2.27) that mirrored a similar jump in the value of the change-up (.77 > 3.73).

2011 was such a great year for Hamels that 2012 was bound to show some fall-off. Based on 2011, some prognosticators had Hamels pegged as a Cy Young dark horse. That didn't happen, largely because of a .35 point higher BABIP and a modest falloff in effectiveness against right-handers -- who, after all, make up about 70% of the hitters Hamels faces in an average season. However, Hamels was still very good in 2012. And no, his fastball velocity did not fall off appreciably, nor did he show signs of "falling in love" with his cutter. He used the cutter 2.5-3% less, in fact, and threw notably more change-ups than in either of the previous two years. Both adjustments look very like the actions of a pitcher trying not to become over-reliant on his cutter. An ominous stat, though, was an 8.5% higher LD% against right-handers. The cutter generated a lower whiff rate (5.7%, down from 9.2% in 2011), but whether or why it was otherwise a less successful pitch than in the previous year is hard to say. This heat map by comparison to those for 2010 and 2011 against RHB (shown earlier), may or may not suggest a tendency to be more in the strike zone with a (therefore) more hittable pitch. Clearly, though, batters don't have to worry about being jammed.


2013 has been a struggle for Hamels, not simply in getting wins, but in lack of consistency. Why? Well, for one thing he is throwing too many balls and too few strikes. Hamels' K/b ratio has always been around 2/1. This year he's thrown 58% as many balls as strikes. When he does throw strikes, they're getting hit more. Contact (per BIS) in the zone is at an all-time high (85.2% vs career 82.0%) even while pitches in the zone are at an all-time low (42.3% vs Career 50.1%), although the second is a career-long trend. Unfavorable counts have been particularly problematic. Below are Fangraph wOBA's for 2011, 2012, and 2013 in four unfavorable counts.

Counts 2013 2012 2011
2-0 .587 .341 .343
3-1 .463 .429 .347
3-0 .829 .538 .495
2-1 .325 .296 .235

2013, not good. The lion's share of the damage is being done by right-hand batters, which, unfortunately, are what Cole will see many more of. It's interesting to note that Hamels had a lower FIP and xFIP against right-handers from 2008-2010. Since that time, the reverse has been the case.

Has the cutter figured disproportionately in the 2013 scuffle? The Missanelli crowd seems to think so. That's not an easy issue to resolve, particularly since BIS and Pitch f/x have very different takes on the frequency with which Hamels has thrown the pitch. They are pretty close to one another for 2013. BIS has the pitch being thrown at a rate (17.9%) below 2011 (20.7%) and 2012 (18.2%) levels, with an increase of fastballs taking up the slack. Pitch f/x has the pitch rate of cutters at 17.3%, but sees that, relative to the last 3 years (8.6%, 12.1%, 9.1%, respectively), as an all-time high. So is 17% a high figure for Hamels or isn't it? Curveballs meanwhile stand at an all-time low. To the eye, there's a good reason for that, although Pitch f/x surprisingly rates the pitch as generally effective. Fastball and cutter are both rated in negative territory per 100 pitches, with the 4-seamer grading out worse. Velocity of the cutter has shown a slight, but probably insignificant decline the last two years, but swings-and-misses are actually considerably higher than in 2012 (10.7% vs 6.4%) and slightly higher than in 2011 (9.4%) If there is any difference between 2012 and 2013 4-seamers, it's perhaps a tendency to be more up-and-in and less up-and-away with the pitch. However, cutter and fastball are not the only place to look for an explanation of the anomalous 2013. Hamels' change-up has been thrown for strikes almost 10% less than in 2011 and 2012 and has generated around 7% fewer swings. Either the pitch itself is less deceptive or hitters are expecting it more and showing more selectivity.

Adaptation and reinvention are an ongoing process. Whether 2011 was a high-water mark for success with the cutter or whether more recent times simply point to a need to get more comfortable with the pitch's best rate and range of uses remains to be seen. 17% of a pitcher's pitches being cutters doesn't sound like a disproportionate figure. Roy Halladay crossed the 17% Rubicon a long time ago, but unlike Hamels, Doc has been de-emphasizing his fastball and has only recently embraced the change-up. If I were to wish anything for Hamels' continuing development, it is a greater mastery of the curveball. Whether that is realistic for a pitcher who has been throwing it as long as Hamels has, well . . . .

Something is clearly up with Hamels, though.