Note: This article was originally published at the Statistically Speaking blog at MVN.com on December 13, 2007. Since the MVN.com site is defunct and its articles are no longer available on the web, I am re-publishing the article here.
I don’t know any other major league pitcher who relies on his cut fastball to nearly the same extent as Mariano Rivera, but there are many pitchers who use a cutter to some degree. Most of them, like Josh Beckett, merely put a little “cut” on a fastball now and then, and it’s debatable whether to classify it as a separate pitch in their repertoire. Some of them, like Greg Maddux, throw both a cut fastball and another fastball as fairly distinct pitches. A few others, like our subject today, throw a single type of fastball that moves more like a cutter than it does like a traditional four-seamer. Do we also label this kind of a pitch a cut fastball?
The cutter is second only, perhaps, to the slider in the flexibility of its definition. Almost every starting pitcher is said to throw a cutter by an obscure report somewhere. I’ve learned to discount these notional references, but I pay a lot more attention when the pitcher himself or his catcher says he threw a cutter.
Which brings us to Joakim Soria, closer for the Kansas City Royals. The Royals picked him up from the San Diego Padres in the Rule 5 draft last winter, and what a find that was! He had been pitching well in the Mexican League, and showed his stuff for the Royals last year when the closer of plan, Octavio Dotel, was first injured and later traded. Soria appeared in 62 games, pitched 69 innings, allowing 46 hits, 19 walks, and only three home runs, while racking up 75 strikeouts to go with 17 saves and 2.48 ERA.
What pitches does Joakim Soria throw? His catcher John Buck reports:
“It’s hard to pick him up. His ball has a natural cut to it. Not as much as [Rafael] Soriano but it does have a cut to it. That’s just his natural fastball,” Buck said.
“He has a great slider and curveball and can throw his change-up on any count. You have to kind of speed up your bat to get the head up to hit the cutter and, all of a sudden, he throws a changeup and it makes it difficult — sitting in-between those two is a tough place to be as a hitter.”
So his catcher calls his fastball a cutter. Let’s take a look at the data we have from PITCHf/x for the 2007 season, covering 477 pitches for Joakim Soria. I’ll begin with a graph of pitch speed versus the angle at which the spin on the ball is deflecting the pitch.
Soria has a fastball with a lot of cut that runs 89-94 mph. The cut fastball is his bread-and-butter pitch; he uses it for 69% of his pitches to lefties and 78% of his pitches to righties.
He has a changeup with a lot of lateral action that he throws 80-84 mph. He uses the changeup almost exclusively to lefties, making up 19% of his pitches to them.
As his off-speed pitch to righties, Soria uses a slider with a big break that runs 76-81 mph. The slider makes up 11% of his pitches to right-handed hitters.
Rounding out his repertoire is a slow curveball that Soria throws 66-71 mph. The curveball makes up 10% of his pitches, and he uses it equally to lefties and righties.
Let’s look at how these pitches move from the hitter’s perspective.
All of Soria’s pitches have good movement. His fastball has”cut” to it, and his changeup has good lateral and vertical movement when compared to his fastball. His slider looks like most pitchers’ curveballs, and his curveball is a slow ball with a lot of drop.
Next, let’s look at what pitches Soria throws in each ball-strike count.
And here’s the same information presented graphically:
We can see that until he gets a strike, Soria uses almost only the cut fastball, and when he gets two strikes, he brings out the curveball pretty often, except in a 3-2 count, where he sticks with the cutter. This would imply that the curveball is his strikeout pitch and that he has trouble getting strikes with his off-speed pitches.
As a second opinion, you can look at what Josh Kalk’s algorithm spit out for Joakim Soria. Josh also has release point data there if you are interested in that.
Finally, let’s examine where Soria throws his pitches and what results he gets.
CS=called strike, SS=swinging strike, IPO=in play (out), IPNO=in play (no out), TB=total bases, BABIP=batting average on balls in play (including home runs), SLGBIP=slugging average on balls in play (including home runs). For Strk% all pitches other than balls are counted as strikes. Con% = (Foul+IPO+IPNO)/(Foul+IPO+IPNO+SS).
Our earlier conclusions seem to hold up.
Here are Soria’s results for the cut fastball.
To lefties, Soria seems willing to pound the zone with the cutter, and his results indicate that strategy works. Against righties, he works more up and away. He misses the zone a little more often, and he generates more foul balls, but his results are still good.
Moving on, let’s see the results for the changeup and slider:
As I mentioned earlier, Soria uses the changeup to lefties and the slider to righties. In both cases, he likes to throw down and away. It looks like he has trouble throwing the slider consistently for strikes.
Last, but not least, the curveball.
Soria gets a lot of swinging strikes in the zone to both lefties and righties. The only difference appears to be when he misses–down and away to righties, and up and away or down and in to lefties.
Since I mentioned earlier that the curveball looked like Soria’s strikeout pitch, let’s check on that. We have PITCHf/x data for 40 of his 75 strikeouts. For those 40 K’s, 23 of them were on the curveball, 9 on the cutter, 4 on the changeup, and 3 on the slider.
I hope you enjoyed the analysis of one of my favorite players from my favorite team. My work’s had a bit of an “East Coast bias” lately, which feels a bit odd to me. I don’t expect to continue solely in that vein. If nothing else, you should see a Royal popping up in this space now and then.