Jon Niese and His New Weapon: The Cutter

By Josh Smolow

When we last analyzed Jon Niese (see article HERE), we noticed that:

1. he had developed a distinct second fastball, a two-seam fastball, that he had not shown in 2008.

2. And his four-seam fastball appeared to have much better movement than in 2008

3. However, there was one thing that we didn’t see:  A cut fastball.

Toby has been telling me that Niese has been using a cutter (or cut fastball) in addition to his four seam fastball and that he’s been using it in the minors.  However, such a pitch did not appear clearly in PitchFX, in either his two starts this year or his three starts last year.

But, in his start on 7/25/09 versus Houston, the cutter did appear…..

start3niesemovementofallpitches

How to read the graphs: Each graph plots the movement of each individual pitch.  The x-axis is the horizontal movement of the pitches:  the further left on the graph, the further in on a righty and vice versa.  The graph is from the perspective of a catcher or umpire.

The top graph’s y-axis is the vertical movement of each pitch….pitches whose vertical movement is above 0 tend to fall less than they are expected to because of gravity while pitches whose vertical movement is less than 0 fall more than they are expected to due to gravity.

Finally, the bottom graph’s y-axis is the speed of that individual pitch.


You can see on these two graphs that Niese threw a total of five distinct pitches on Saturday.  First, the Red Xs represent Niese’s four seam fastballs.  The Blue +s represent Niese’s two seam fastballs.  The dark green squares represent Niese’s cutters.   The Light Blue Circles represent Niese’s curveballs and the gray Cs represent Niese’s 3 thrown change-ups.

****IMPORTANT TECHNICAL NOTE: You may notice that all of the pitches seem farther left on the graph (more in on right handed batters) than similar pitches were in the last PitchFX article on Niese.  This is very likely due to the calibration of the cameras at Minute Maid Park.  So while the graph above shows Niese’s four-seam and two-seam fastballs as straighter than they were back in May, this may not actually be the case. Similarly, the cutters may not be moving as far in on right handed batters as the graph above.  It is key not to compare this graph to the graph in the last article, but to instead compare the pitches in the above graph to each other. ****


The dark green squares represent a clear new pitch in Niese’s arsenal:  a Cutter.  Niese threw 24 of these pitches on Saturday and met with pretty good results (Batters were 1/4 on the pitch and only 6 cutters were taken for balls).  You’ll notice that the pitch is slightly slower than Niese’s four-seam fastball and doesn’t “rise” as much.  More importantly, the pitch seems to move in the opposite direction horizontally as his other fastballs, moving in on Righties.  This can be more easily seen in the graphic below.

start3niesefastball_horizontalcomparison

As you can see Niese’s cutter, relative to his two and four-seam fastballs, moves noticeably in on right-handed batters.  In fact, the cutter may indeed actually move in on righty batters in an absolute sense as well.  However, this is very possibly an illusion caused by the calibration of the PitchFX cameras in Houston. Almost all cut fastballs thrown by pitchers in the majors DO NOT actually MOVE in the opposite direction as a normal fastball; in fact, only a few pitchers in the majors, actually have a cutter that works this way.  Mariano Rivera’s cutter is one of the few that actually has absolute movement away from a standard fastball.

Anyhow, you can clearly see how different the horizontal movement is on each one of Niese’s fastballs.  This could potentially be very useful in fooling batters….a batter who expects the four seam fastball and gets a cutter is going to be a bit off in his swing and a batter who expects the cutter and gets the two-seam fastball is going to be VERY off in his attempt to hit the ball.

Still, there is a bigger benefit to having a cutter to throw against certain batters….it enables Niese to hit certain locations with his fastball that he wouldn’t be able to otherwise.  This can be seen below.

start3niesefastballlocations1

The picture to the right charts the locations for each of Niese’s fastballs when they crossed homeplate.  The legend is the same as the above graph (the red Xs represent the four-seam fastballs, the dark green squares are the cutters, and the blue +s are the two-seam fastballs).  The light blue semi-transparent rectangle is the area of the strike zone (theoretically…it obviously depends on the umpire).

1. Most of the two-seam fastballs cross the plate away from right hand batters and in on left hand batters.  This would appear to be where Niese aims this pitch, and this result above is consistent with Niese’s two seam fastballs in May.

2. The four-seam fastballs tend to cluster around the middle of the plate, but a decent number of them land to either side of the plate.

3. The Cutters on the other hand, cluster inside on right-handed batters and away from left-handed batters.  In other words, the cutter is doing exactly what Niese wants it to do: get in on the hands of righty batters, a thing that is difficult usually for a lefty pitcher to accomplish.

Conclusion:

Niese’s development can be clearly traced through his starts in front of PitchFX cameras.  Last year, he had a very straight fastball and a two-seam fastball that wasn’t very good, as it wasn’t much different than his four-seam fastball.  This year, the two fastballs are very different.  And now, Niese has developed a cutter which makes his prime speed offerings extremely varied and versatile.  Niese can hit any target in the strike zone with a fastball and can fool an opponent who is expecting one type of fastball.  This is in addition to Niese’s deadly curveball, which is still really effective and probably his best pitch.

Speaking of his curveball, one thing you may have noticed up there is that his curveball’s horizontal movement seemed more varied than usual, and that it seemed at times on TV (and to PitchFX) to be almost more like a slurve than Niese’s 12-6 curveball.  This could have been an illusion created by the calibration of the PitchFX cameras….or it might not.  This will be an area of further examination when  Niese pitches in Citi-field, where he started his first two times in May.

Similarly, we should take another look at Niese’s cutter in his next few starts to see how far in on righties the pitch truly is moving so we can get a better handle on what the pitch is capable of.