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Are the Phillies becoming a cutter factory?

The resurgence of Jose Alvarado begs the question

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Miami Marlins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

One of the reasons the Phillies have been so good lately is the resurgence of their bullpen. Led by the cast of characters you already know the names of (Robertson, Dominguez, Hand, etc.), they have been able to shut the door on teams when needed, keep games close when called upon and not take a gas can to an already out of control fire that former iterations of this bullpen have done in the past. Jose Alvarado was in the spotlight not long ago when one of the local beat reporters spoke to Caleb Cotham about how, with Alvarado, they were emphasizing to him to throw his best pitch more often:

“I would say (Alvarado) is a strike-creator more than a strike-thrower, and he can create a lot of strikes right outside the zone with the cutter, specifically,” Cotham said. “That pitch, it’s top of the charts. It’s one of the better pitches in baseball. There’s not many left-handed pitchers that are even throwing that pitch.”

Much focus was put on Alvarado when it came to the pitch since he was the one that was having a turnaround season. When a guy like Alvarado, one who has always had the stuff but maybe not the results, finally starts getting those two things to match up in tandem, we look for reasons why.

But is there something else going on as well?

During Noah Syndergaard’s last start against the Marlins, Matt Gelb noted that he thought Syndergaard was throwing something new.

It’s completely possible that perhaps whatever it was that Syndergaard was throwing was simply being mislabeled by Statcast, which still has him throwing a slider and not a cutter, but friend of TGP Matt Winkelman was quick to point out that yes, the Phillies are leaning into the pitch as a weapon of choice.

If Syndergaard had suddenly tightened up his slider and made it into something else, perhaps that’s by design and on the recommendation of the pitching coach. Knowing what we know about Alvarado this year, it’s possible that perhaps Cotham has been telling pitchers that it’s better to throw a cutter than anything else. Taking a gander at the pitching staff, there are several pitchers who have been leaning into the pitch more often as the season has gone on. Using Statcast, I tracked the pitchers on the pitching staff that have used a pitch labeled a “cutter” for this season and saw a trend of an uptick in usage as the season progressed.

Cutter usage on the Phillies’ staff

Player May June July August
Player May June July August
R. Suarez 1.1% 4.2% 16.8% 14.3%
K. Gibson 20.8% 21.8% 22.8% 27.7%
A. Nola 3.1% 5.4% 1.8% 8.0%
J. Alvarado 30.4% 49.2% 52.9% 42.9%
C. Brogdon 21.1% 33.6% 27.5% 11.3%

It’s not a huge trend of course, but there is something to it. Several pitchers have started to throw the cutter more often, sometimes with good results (Alvarado), sometimes with uneven results (Gibson). Now consider Syndergaard and his past two starts with the Phillies. We’ve all seen that the team is has been working on his arsenal, trying to squeeze the last few drops of productivity out of him this season. His last two starts have seen a difference in what the slider actually looks like: less vertical break and much less horizontal break compared to his season average on both.

August 10

August 15

Both times, the sliders has tightened up more and more, perhaps to the point where it needs to be reclassified for what it is. In public, the team is still calling the pitch a slider, but maybe as a competitive advantage, they’re not calling it a cutter. Semantics, really, as it doesn’t really provide much of advantage, but it is interesting nonetheless.

There still is a whole lot we don’t know about what’s going on behind the scenes. Maybe Syndergaard is truly throwing a slider that he has gotten better with. Maybe the philosophy simply throwing your best pitch, whatever that pitch may be, has been loosed among the pitching staff with the change in managers. Maybe this is all just a bit of nothing. But there is a bit of evidence here that the team has adopted a new direction of pitch design, one that emphasizes using a cutter more often as a better way of inducing weak contact. It’s something to keep an eye on this year and so long as Cotham is the pitching coach here.