In 2011 the Boston Red Sox hired former Athletics pitching coach Curt Young. One thing everyone knew Young would bring to Boston was the cutter and quickly the Red Sox starters added cutters to their repertoire and threw plenty of them. This was seen as something that could help the team, but has it turned out that way and what has changed now that he is gone.
Using the data from Fangraphs.com we can search starters by year for the Red Sox and see a clear trend in cutters that started in 2009 with 7.3 percent cutters that season. In 2010 it was up slightly to 8.9 percent, but in 2011 Young brought that rate to 12.6 percent.
That trend has continued even without Young in town as the early season 2012 Red Sox starters are throwing 15.8 percent of their pitches as cutters. This data is not vetted so I’ll be using BrooksBaseball.net player cards to look into each pitcher and see who was most affected by Young.
Starting with the number one Jon Lester we can see he really took on the teachings of Young. Going from 19 and 22 percent cutters in 2009 and 2010 Lester increased his usage to 28 percent and is only down to 24 percent in 2012.
The pitch was fairly good for Lester in 2010 with a fair rate of groundballs, a better than league average whiff rate and only 1.69 percent HR/(LD+FB). In 2011 though the pitch was much less effective with regard to home runs. His HR/(LD+FB) jumped to 11.11 percent, which is also the rate so far in 2012.
Over the past few years Beckett has slowly developed his cutter and only made a slight jump in 2011 under Young, but from 2009 to 2011 his rate jumped from 6 percent to 16 percent. This season his drop in velocity has seen him throw 24 percent cutters.
The cutter for Beckett results in a lot of contact for the hitters. He hits the zone at a very high rate, but in 2011 hitters swung 58 percent of the time and put the ball in play 22 percent of the time. Both rates higher than any other pitch. The last thing you want to do is have a pitch getting put in play at such a high rate.
In a weird case Lackey has no cutters according to Pitch F/x and was not adding one in 2011. His inability to get anyone out had nothing to do with new pitches, but just his inability to do anything with the ones he throws already.
The rest of the staff held pretty close to career levels with Daisuke Matsuzka, Alfredo Aceves and Clay Buchholz throwing at normal levels. Kyle Weiland also used a cutter, but tough to say if he threw it more than usual with no previous major league data.
The 2012 season sees the three top pitchers really relying on the cutter in Lester, Buchholz and Beckett with totals near 25 percent in the early going. This could be a small sample, but it hasn’t been encouraging either. The run value according to Fangrahs for the cutter by Red Sox starter has been -1.51 for every 100 cutters thrown.
The cutter has been shown to have plenty of benefits according to some early studies, like decreasing BABIP and even HR/FB numbers. This is for a good cutter though and just adding more won’t always work. Not everyone can throw the Mariano Rivera cutter and as you increase the rate the pitch is more exposed.
The early 2012 numbers for Buchholz have to be the most concerning and would wonder why Buchholz has used the cutter so much. He has brought back a slider according to BrooksBaseball, but would like to see that even more from him. Curt Young appears to have really influenced the top three pitchers in the Red Sox staff and that has held even after his days in Boston are over.
The cutter is not inherently a bad pitch, but using it as often as the Red Sox starters are might be to much based on the results. If the cutter becomes the “go to” pitch for these guys and is predictable the hitters can certainly tee off on it.