David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The moment that Mike Pelfrey finally decided to throw a cutter was the time he tried to hit one. The operative word here being "tried."
It was June 8 at Miller Park, and the Brewers' Randy Wolf was toying with Pelfrey. Wolf worked him inside with a cutter -- with the late, sharp break darting into his hands -- before throwing a fastball that appeared headed for the dugout.
"I'm a bad hitter as it is," Pelfrey said, "but he still did it to me. After seeing the cutter, the fastball looked 100 feet outside. I'm sitting there thinking, 'Damn, why don't I throw a cutter if it's this easy?' "
Therein lies the attraction to one of the more effective -- and accessible -- weapons that has spiked in popularity throughout the major-league pitching ranks.
The impossible dream is to throw the bat-shattering cutter of Mariano Rivera, who became the game's greatest closer on the strength of that one lethal pitch.
But for those who aren't blessed with that natural cutting action, they'll settle for a pitch that fools hitters by looking like a fastball -- until it isn't.
That deception is why the pitch can be so easy to pick up during a bullpen session, as Dillon Gee did earlier this month, and be trusted enough to be thrown a few days later.
The key is the grip, and in most cases, there is no need to alter the mechanics of the pitcher's delivery to throw it. No worrying about arm speeds like the changeup, no additional torque on the elbow like the slider. Just start with the standard grip for a four-seam fastball, with two fingers straight across the seam. Then angle those fingers slightly so they run diagonally -- or cut -- over that seam.
From there, just throw it like a fastball. Same velocity. The lopsided grip causes the ball to spin slightly off axis, which results in that tiny curl at the end, the one responsible for cracking bat handles or getting weak grounders.
"That's what you're looking for," Gee said. "Most of the cutters are to get bad contact. It's not so much a swing-and-miss pitch unless you're Rivera. Out of your hand, the hitter is thinking fastball. They've already started their swing when they realize, 'Man, this is going to break a few inches' and then they get jammed or something."
Gee rushed to develop the pitch before his June 4 start against Atlanta because the slider, a once-reliable weapon, suddenly had abandoned him. His first plan was to refine a cutter during the offseason. But after experimenting with the cutter grip earlier in the week and then having no feel for his slider during his pregame bullpen session, Gee figured it was time.
"I always wanted to learn one," he said. "I think it's forced my hand to learn it faster because I was running out of options with the slider. I was like, I need to move up this timetable and learn this now.
"I don't know if everybody can throw it. I didn't even know I could throw one until I started messing around with the grip."
A number of Mets have consulted Jason Isringhausen, who has relied on the cutter since his early days in Oakland. He's been sort of the Godfather of the pitch since joining the team in spring training, when Chris Capuano adopted it. "There's a lot of guys throwing it now because I think the slider is pretty hard on people's elbows," Isringhausen said. "It's not a hard pitch to pick up as long as you trust the grip."
Much to the chagrin of hitters. The cutter is primarily why Carlos Beltran wears a shinguard -- because of the pitch digging in on his hands before he fouls it straight down off his lower leg. And nothing makes a pitcher happier than hearing what makes a hitter unhappy.
"That's why I wanted to learn it," Gee said, "because everyone was always saying about someone, I hate to face this guy -- he throws a cutter."