Maybe Chipper Jones was onto something.
You might remember this Buster Olney column from early May, in which Jones offered up one possible explanation for the decline in overall offense in baseball between this season and last: the cutter, which the Braves veteran described at the time as "the bane of my existence."
Although the overall major league numbers don't bear out Jones' claim -- pitchers as a whole have thrown cutters only 3.1 percent of the time and have held opponents to .266/.318/.404 rates with the pitch this season and last, compared with 2.8 percent and .262/.333/.418 in 2009 -- it's the individuals who have mastered the cutter who warrant our attention.
Take Cole Hamels, for example. Jones' frustration with the cutter could be attributed almost entirely to the one Hamels throws because Hamels developed the pitch before the 2010 season, and that's when the Hamels-Jones head-to-head statistics took a noticeable, and dramatic, turn:
Pre-2010: 26 PAs overall, .409/.500/.864 rates, 2 K's in 22 AB
2010-11: 13 PAs, .100/.308/.100, 4 K's in 10 AB
Those who might explain Hamels' hot start to 2011, and his No. 3 standing among starting pitchers on the Player Rater, as a product of luck -- they would cite his .266 BABIP -- are sorely mistaken. Hamels hasn't become a fantasy ace this season because he has been lucky. He has become a fantasy ace because he's a better pitcher today than two years ago, and the primary reason for his transformation is the 2010 addition, and subsequent 2011 mastery, of the cutter.
Hamels first experimented with the cutter liberally in 2010 spring training, and his initial results were mixed. Dividing up his 2010-11 by half-seasons, however, here's how his performance with that particular pitch has progressed:
2010 first half: 11.3 percent of total pitches, .289/.304/.689, 47 PAs, 17.0 Miss%, 39.5 GB%
2010 second half: 14.4 percent of pitches, .127/.200/.145, 60 PAs, 26.9 Miss%, 50.0 GB%
2011 first half: 19.8 percent of pitches, .188/.198/.247, 86 PAs, 19.1 Miss%, 59.7 GB%
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Hamels' performance with his other offerings -- he throws a low-90s fastball, a curveball and a changeup -- also has improved in that time, which makes sense as the cutter has only helped deepen his arsenal. To that end, his OPS allowed with each of those pitches has dropped in each of his past three half-seasons.
A 15-game winner in 2007, 211-strikeout artist in 2010, and owner of a 3.09 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 2008, Hamels finds himself on pace to shatter all four of those personal bests in 2011: His paces are 20 wins, 229 K's, a 2.51 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. Those are Cy Young-caliber numbers but are hardly unrealistic (except maybe the always-unpredictable wins).
This is a pitcher who has improved his arsenal to take the step to the next level. He is a true fantasy ace.
Hamels isn't the only one, of course. Here are a few more pitchers whose recent mastery of the cutter has helped elevate their fantasy value long term. (Note: Obviously, pitchers such as John Danks, Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, Jon Lester, Shaun Marcum -- not to mention Mariano Rivera among relievers -- have long since mastered the cutter. The pitchers below are those you might not have known about.)
Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox: I've said on these pages for several weeks now that Beckett deserves our kudos for compensating for diminished velocity by becoming a better overall pitcher. His mastery of the cutter is what I'm referring to; opponents have .169/.222/.271 rates and a .119 well-hit average in 63 plate appearances that have ended with a cutter from him. Yes, he's for real.
Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds: He flashed a cutter at times in his rookie season of 2010, throwing 139 of them, but he has thrown nearly that many (136) in just his past five starts combined since returning to the Reds' rotation. Perhaps that has contributed to his 2.31 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in those five outings, though the one caveat is that he's still struggling against left-handers (.315/.377/.463 rates allowed to them overall in those five games) -- a concern because the cutter typically would be used to neutralize lefties. Leake's rotation spot always seems up for grabs, especially with Homer Bailey on the mend, but his increased usage -- and success (.247/.263/.356 rates and a .164 well-hit average on cutters in 2011) -- of the cutter definitely makes him worth tracking.
C.J. Wilson, Texas Rangers: He didn't throw his cutter nearly as much as a reliever as he has since his move to the rotation a year ago, throwing it 11.2 percent of the time this season after 14.9 percent last. Opponents have .241/.308/.333 rates with a .142 well-hit average against his cutter since the beginning of last season; the latter number is third-best in baseball. He has proved reliable at this point.
A special case
Jason Vargas, Seattle Mariners: Here's where pitch tracking becomes a matter of debate; PitchFx shows that Vargas is throwing his slider more often (17.9 percent of the time in 2011, up from 9.3 in 2010), but many accounts classify the pitch a cutter. Whatever you choose to call it -- let's go with PitchFx's choice of "slider" here -- Vargas' use of the pitch has made quite a difference. He has allowed .254/.299/.349 rates and a .127 well-hit average in his 67 plate appearances that ended with a slider, helping explain his 3.75 ERA and 1.18 WHIP to date. With Safeco Field backing him, he might maintain those ratios.
Phil Hughes, New York Yankees: He was leaning on his cutter quite a bit to make up for diminished fastball velocity before landing on the disabled list -- he threw it 19.8 percent of the time -- but it was the addition of a cutter to his arsenal in 2009 that helped him stick permanently at the big league level. When Hughes' fastball reaches the mid-90s, his fastball/curve/cutter combo can be tough for hitters to handle. He hit 95 mph with his fastball in his Sunday rehabilitation start, and if he can remain near that number, he might be due for a huge second half.
Scott Baker, Minnesota Twins: Back-to-back-to-back wins have vaulted him into the top 40 overall among starting pitchers on our Player Rater, and, with his skill set, Baker is a good bet to finish around his current No. 31 ranking. He's 11th among qualified starters in strikeouts per nine innings (8.64) and 12th in strikeouts per walk (3.67), and he's a fly-ball pitcher (43.6 percent rate, 16th highest) who resides in one of the most appropriate venues for that type, Target Field. Baker might be susceptible to rougher matchups in bandbox ballparks; he's the kind of pitcher you might want to avoid in, say, a start at New York's Yankee Stadium or Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field. But, with those rare exceptions, he sure looks like a pitcher you'll be happy to own even in mixed leagues.
Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians: After beginning the season in a bit of a funk, Carrasco has restored much of his preseason breakout potential in his past few turns. He has three consecutive wins with a 0.42 ERA and 0.78 WHIP, but, more importantly, his strikeout-to-walk (3.40) and ground ball rates (62.1) are right in line with his 2010 numbers of 2.71 and 57.8. It's that potential that makes him a candidate to top his own rotation in terms of fantasy value; he's already third among Indians starters for the year and is easily tops on the team in the past 30 days on our Player Rater. Hot starters such as Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin might have overshadowed Carrasco in the early weeks -- Carrasco remains available in more than 75 percent of ESPN leagues -- but he'll earn his due credit soon enough.
John Danks, Chicago White Sox: He was mentioned above as a master of the cutter, and, in what is a three-start winning streak, Danks' cutter has been every bit as effective as ever. He has limited foes to .176/.222/.176 rates and a .059 well-hit average in 18 plate appearances in that span that ended with the pitch. Although Danks' June 6 (versus Mariners) and 11 (versus Oakland Athletics) matchups might cause some to dismiss his numbers in them, his outing this past Saturday at Arizona -- against an Arizona Diamondbacks offense that typically thrives at home -- should have begun to sway them back. Danks has top-25 starter potential when he's "on," and right now he seems "on" again.
Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers: Not every cutter thrower is thriving. Billingsley relies on it almost as often as anyone; he has thrown the eighth-most cutters in 2011 (250) and has thrown it eighth-most often (16.7 percent of the time) among qualified starters. He also is effective with it: Opponents have batted .164/.254/.200 in the 65 plate appearances that have ended with it, his .454 OPS allowed third best in the majors. But, if you've been watching Billingsley lately, his arsenal hasn't fooled anyone the past two turns as he has allowed 13 runs on 22 hits and five walks in 8 2/3 innings combined against the Reds and the Colorado Rockies. Chalk those up to the matchups if you wish, but Billingsley's command has wavered and his results are especially poor. We keep waiting for him to take the next step; he keeps giving us just-outside-the-top-25 numbers.
Fausto Carmona, Indians: Oh, how maddeningly inconsistent Carmona can be. After a disastrous Opening Day start (3 IP, 11 H, 10 ER) sent any possible Carmona owners running for the hills, the right-hander regained the trust of many with a subsequent six-quality-starts-in-seven-tries stretch of a 2.22 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. Those who hopped aboard his bandwagon -- and I know many of you did -- were promptly "rewarded" with a streak of eight consecutive non-quality starts, in which time his ERA is 8.87 ERA and his WHIP 1.66. Yes, his schedule has been treacherous (SEA, @CHW, BOS, @TOR, TEX, @NYY, @DET, COL) and his team's support practically nonexistent, but if any Indians player deserves blame for their funk, Carmona is high on the list. He's the American League's leader in losses (9) and in earned runs (66). There will be times when he's helpful, but trust him for lengthy stretches at your peril.
Charlie Morton, Pittsburgh Pirates: Is the magic gone? Morton, whose 5.23 K's-per-nine and 1.43 K's-per-walk ratios hinted that regression was soon in order, appears to have hit that regression period his past three outings. Including Monday's nightmare (2 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 6 ER), he has allowed 17 runs (15 earned) on 26 hits in 11 innings in his past three starts, especially disconcerting because he hasn't even reached that pesky Red Sox matchup yet; it'll come this weekend. Morton, unfortunately, is the type of pitcher who has to keep the ball down and hit every spot to thrive like he did in the season's early weeks. He's not the kind of pitcher who can be asked to contend for a 3.00 ERA. No, more likely, Morton is a matchups type whose final ERA will be in the 4s.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.