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Glimmers of a pitching revolution

One little pitch - the cut changeup - could open up a whole new world of hurling

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Pitching, as an art form, has long been in need of some kind of revolution, something that changes the face of the art form. It’s hard to identify precise times this happened in the past. There was the point when batters couldn’t request a high or low ball anymore, and when overhand pitching started. Then there’s the 50’s when the slider made its appearance, or the 90’s when Mariano Rivera brought the cutter into vogue. Pitchers have always adjusted to the times - even now fastballs are becoming less common as hitters become more prone to hunt them - so sometimes it’s hard to tell when something earth shaking is happening until later. This is where a pitch I only recently came aware of comes in - the cut change.

It sounds like something a cashier does, not a pitch, but the cut changeup has started popping up as a viable pitch in a couple of different locations. It first came to my attention last year as an offering of Texas Rangers reliever Jose Leclerc. It’s a hard pitch to read - our own Ryan Romano called it a slutter last year when going over his arsenal, due to its combining the aspects of the slider and cutter - but it is its own distinct thing:

Seeing as it pops up just in this one case, this one pitcher, perhaps it was an anomaly. You could convince yourself his splitter simply comes out of his hand odd and has more glove-side movement than most expect, and maybe it’s just a slider with more vertical movement. called this a slider this year:

...and this a curve:

They move differently, yet he’s throwing it the same way. That’s got to be something, and the pitch has been talked about as a cut change from local journalists, so maybe there’s a real thing going on here. Like I said, it’s difficult. Nobody can really describe it, because “cut change” isn’t really in the lexicon. Brooks Baseball describes it as a splitter sometimes. Again, maybe this is all an anomaly.

But then we have Kyle Hendricks. Here is a man who is perhaps the most gifted pitcher in baseball at simply fiddling with the baseball and making it dance. He’s not blessed with low-to-mid-90’s heat like Leclerc, so Hendricks has to get by on guile. Unlike Josh Tomlin and other soft-tossers, though, Hendricks is an elite talent even if he doesn’t have elite velocity. His changeup is filthy. His sinker is near perfect. His control is otherworldly. His other elite ability is that fiddling though. In an article back in 2016 with Eno Sarris, then of FanGraphs, Hendricks showed off a pair of grips for his traditional changeup (arm-side fade) and the cut change (glove-side movement):

Eno Sarris/Fangraphs

In real, on the field terms, that cut change looks a bit like this, courtesy of Rob Friedman, @PitchingNinja on Twitter (follow him):

We’re dealing with a pitch that dives like a slider but looks for all the world like a changeup. If it weren’t for the fact that both Hendricks and Leclerc have admitted to this being something specific they’re working on, you might just think it’s a slider or a slow cut fastball, especially in Hendricks’ case. This is something new, or new-ish, and in the modern way the game is played, it could be major.

The traditional changeup has always worked because the most common pitch is the fastball. The changeup does the things the fastball does, but slower, and it breaks down, but in the last few years, there’s been a decided drop in fastball usage. Over the last decade, four-seam use in starters has fallen from 59.7 percent to 54.6 percent and cutter use has risen from 4.1 percent to 5.3 percent. Changeups have held roughly steady, rising just half a percent, from 11.5 in 2008 to 12 so far this year. That same stretch has seen sliders rise from 13.1 to 14.3 percent and curves jump from 9.7 percent to 12.7 percent. In short, traditional fastballs have fallen off a bit, and the slack is being picked up by breaking pitches.

Is that where the cut change can come in, as a complement to other hard breaking pitches? It’s not quite as hard as a slider, it looks like a fastball or cutter, and at least in Leclerc’s case moves at times like a sharp curve. It’s a little hard to fathom, since you’d have to have something very odd happening to be able to change up on a curveball. It’s a pitch with a niche, that’s for sure. Leclerc has a use for it, Hendricks does, maybe someone like Corey Kluber with a lethal slurve and a good cutter could use something like it to effect. Maybe it won’t trigger a revolution, but it could. It’s a whole new dimension of off-speed messing with batters. Change comes in all shapes and sizes.

Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball thoughts for Beyond the Box Score, and Cleveland Indians thoughts at Let’s Go Tribe. Find him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.