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Cutting Your Fastball Isn’t Always Bad

The Cardinals have a few pitchers who have seen great results by cutting their four-seamers instead of getting behind them.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

My motivation for this article is two-fold. For starters, I’ve always heard that it’s not great for a pitcher to cut his fastball but that’s always felt like an oversimplification. Surely pitchers are different and can have success in different ways, right? That’s something I’ll dive into with this piece (and that should already make intuitive sense).

My second motivation comes from an article I recently wrote titled “The Cardinals Throw Too Many Fastballs”. Now, I want to take an in depth look at some of those fastballs which may provide some justification as to why the team, or at least certain pitchers, throw so many heaters.

The fastballs I want to look at are the atypical ones. And not atypical in the Ryan Helsley way, as in high velocity with a lot of carry, because that’s the prototype that’s in right now. If you take a second right now and think of an ideal four-seam fastball, what do you come up with?

It’s probably thrown hard, it probably has a lot of carry, and it’s probably thrown at the top of the zone.

That’s a fair assessment because that kind of fastball can be dominant. And the St. Louis Cardinals don’t have many pitchers with that kind of a fastball. There’s Ryan Helsley and there’s...Ryan Helsley. That’s it. I guess you can throw Jordan Hicks in there even though he doesn’t throw a ton of four-seamers but that’s everyone.

In a day and age where we often hear about pitchers trying to find that kind of fastball, that’s what we often focus on. But that’s not the only kind of four-seam fastball that can have success. Far from it, in fact.

The Cardinals have 4 pitchers who throw a distinctly different kind of fastball. It’s still a four-seam fastball but it’s a cutting four-seam fastball. And that’s what I want to look at in this article.

What is a cutting fastball? First off, note that I’m calling it a “cutting fastball” and not a cut fastball. That’s because a cut fastball, or a cutter, is a distinctive pitch featuring anywhere between 0 to a few inches of glove side cut, typically thrown a few ticks slower than a pitcher’s fastball. That’s not what we’re dealing with here.

What’s we’re dealing with is pitchers who don’t get a great amount of active spin on their fastballs and thus see less carry than normal That’s typically accompanied by more movement in the glove side direction than normal but you can also think of it as a fastball that gets significantly less run than the average while not having a great deal of carry.

Generally this happens when a pitcher naturally struggles to stay behind the ball and instead puts pressure on the side of the ball creating some side spin or gyro spin. This prevents the pitch from having a rising effect but it also prevents it from running as much.

You can see how this can be dangerous. A fastball that doesn’t move a ton can easily get hammered, which is why coaches sometimes try to coach this out of a pitcher and aim for more active spin. Or, instead of trying to get the pitcher to chase better active spin, the coach may try to get him to switch to a sinker.

This works for some but not for others. Some pitchers can cut their fastballs effectively and some can’t and the Cardinals have 4 pitchers who cut their fastballs much more than normal - Andre Pallante, Chris Stratton, Drew VerHagen and Jack Flaherty.

Let’s dive into each.

Andre Pallante

Let’s start with the metrics on Pallante’s fastball

Andre Pallante’s Fastball

Year Velocity (mph) Active Spin Vertical Movement (in) Horizontal Movement (in) Average Exit Velocity (mph) wOBA xwOBA Whiff Rate GB%
Year Velocity (mph) Active Spin Vertical Movement (in) Horizontal Movement (in) Average Exit Velocity (mph) wOBA xwOBA Whiff Rate GB%
2022 95.2 72% 21.0 3.6 89.1 0.326 0.306 12.2% 71.5%
2023 95.8 68% 20.6 2.3 87.0 0.329 0.309 18.6% 80.4%

This is a unique pitch. Honestly, I might even go so far to call it an outlier pitch as I can’t remember ever seeing a four-seamer with an 80% ground ball rate.

What’s makes it so successful? The fact that it’s so freaking weird. In fact, it’s the only four-seamer in the league (min. 50 pitches) that gets 50+% less rise AND 50+% less run than the average fastball thrown at similar velocities.

The only four-seamer in baseball that’s really comparable to Pallante’s is Justin Steele’s and those have both been strong offerings this year (remember that a negative run value is good for a pitcher).

Fastball: Pallante vs. Steele

Pitcher Velocity (mph) Vertical Movement % V Mov vs. Avg Horizontal Movement % H Mov vs. Avg Run Value
Pitcher Velocity (mph) Vertical Movement % V Mov vs. Avg Horizontal Movement % H Mov vs. Avg Run Value
Andre Pallante 95.8 20.6 -51% 2.3 -69% -6
Justin Steele 92.1 21.4 -37% 1.4 -122% -9

I’ve talked a lot about cutting fastballs already, but what does it look like? If you’ve watched Andre Pallante pitch, he’s the perfect example.

This pitch actually had an inch of cut, which is a whole lot considering that the average fastball thrown at similar velocities to Pallante’s fastball runs 7.6 inches. Hitters don’t get to see a four-seamer move like that very often.

Combine that with the funky look that Pallante gives hitters, and there’s a lot of weirdness coming towards the plate, which is perfect because one of the worst things a pitcher can be is typical, average, and usual. None of those words have ever been used to describe Andre Pallante.

There is room for Pallante to improve his arsenal, though. The right-hander’s entire arsenal is built around pitches with drop but not much horizontal movement. In fact, there’s only a 9 inch difference in horizontal break between his fastball and his sweepiest pitch (his curveball). He could really benefit from adding a pitch that works the horizontal plane more effectively.

Given his natural ability to cut his fastball and his high spin rate breaking balls, I believe he has the potential to tweak either his curveball or his slider to give him a sweepier pitch to round out his arsenal and play off his cutting fastball.

Chris Stratton

Chris Stratton has been a solid reliever for at least a few years now but he’s taken a turn for the better in 2023 and that turn has been almost exclusively caused by an improved fastball.

Chris Stratton’s Improved Fastball

Year Usage wOBA xwOBA Run Value
Year Usage wOBA xwOBA Run Value
2022 43.1% 0.428 0.348 11
2023 56.0% 0.247 0.286 -6

That’s a massive difference and it’s one that justifies a higher usage fastball approach. So what’s changed? Stratton has leaned into cutting his fastball even more.

Chris Stratton’s Fastball Shape

Year Velocity (mph) Vertical Movement (In) Horizontal Movement (in) Active Spin
Year Velocity (mph) Vertical Movement (In) Horizontal Movement (in) Active Spin
2022 92.8 16.9 3.6 66%
2023 92.8 16.6 1.8 71%

Notice how Stratton cut his horizontal movement in half? That gives his fastball the least horizontal movement of any pitcher on the team. The right-hander has a low active spin fastball but he cuts it well and that keeps it out of the dead zone which makes it a really effective pitch.

Here’s a prime example:

Notice how this pitch seemed to cut? That’s because this pitch had exactly 0 inches of horizontal movement. That’s a cutter-type profile from a four-seam fastball.

Stratton has never been a pitcher that gets a lot of active spin on his fastball, so leaning hard into what makes him unique has helped him become a better pitcher. And what makes Stratton unique is that he’s a textbook supinator.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, let me take a second to explain it. Generally speaking, pitchers with a supination bias are able to create a lot of movement (specifically horizontal movement) and power on their breaking balls but struggle when their hand is in a pronated position, like when throwing sinkers or changeups.

Essentially think about supination vs pronation as the direction in which a pitcher’s hand is facing. When supinating, the hand is facing inward towards a pitcher’s body and when pronating, the hand is facing outwards, away from a pitcher’s body.

So, when I say that Stratton is a textbook supinator, it’s because he throws two separate breaking balls with a ton of spin, good velocity relative to his fastball velocity, and much more sweep than average. He also barely uses his changeup and sinker.

The benefit of someone with Stratton’s profile is the ability to spin breaking balls effectively. The downside is the potential to throw a fastball that doesn’t move enough. Stratton has overcome that by leaning into what makes him unique (natural supination) and now is reaping the rewards of a complete arsenal that has made him the bullpen’s runner up in fWAR (0.7) behind only Ryan Helsley (0.8 fWAR).

Drew VerHagen

Drew VerHagen is another pitcher who has been helped by better fastball results. He’s cutting his fastball a bit more than usual as he’s getting an average of 2.7 inches of horizontal movement this year after getting 3.1 inches last year but that’s not a big enough difference to explain the drastic improvement in VerHagen’s heater.

Drew VerHagen’s Improved Fastball

Year Usage wOBA xwOBA Run Value
Year Usage wOBA xwOBA Run Value
2022 22.2% 0.585 0.534 4
2023 30.8% 0.330 0.300 2

Instead, the difference for VerHagen has been command. Oftentimes, a pitcher who cuts his fastball targets the glove side heavily, which shouldn’t be surprising because that’s typically where pitchers like to throw their cutters.

Yet, last year, VerHagen didn’t always get his fastball far enough over to his glove side.

He’s done a much better job of that this year.

If you draw a vertical line down the middle of the strike zone in the above pictures, you’ll notice that most of the red comes on the arm side in 2022 but in 2023 that flips over to the glove side.

So, the extra cut helps but extra cut doesn’t help that much if a pitcher is struggling to locate. VerHagen’s command has improved this year and that has worked wonders for his cutting fastball.

Jack Flaherty

And that leads us to Jack Flaherty, who, all of a sudden, is cutting his fastball more than ever. In fact, that’s been one of the most interesting developments of the season for me.

In 2019, Flaherty’s fastball had 15.8 inches of drop and 4.8 inches of run. This year, the pitch has 18.5 inches of drop and just 1.8 inches of run.

The interesting thing is that Flaherty hasn’t always been a pitcher with a low rate of active spin. Baseball Savant doesn’t have active spin data beyond 2020, but you can see a clear trend here:

Jack Flaherty’s Fastball Shape

Year Active Spin Vertical Movement (in) Horizontal Movement (in)
Year Active Spin Vertical Movement (in) Horizontal Movement (in)
2020 85% 15.9 5.8
2021 79% 15.8 4.0
2022 73% 17.5 3.6
2023 70% 18.5 1.8

The good news for Flaherty is that he’s now cutting the ball enough to be weird and weird is good. The bad news is that he’s still figuring out how to get strikes with his fastball. He’s throwing the pitch in the zone at a career low rate of 51.6%, which is still high enough to be fine if he could get hitters to chase, but he also has a career low chase rate on the pitch at 13.3%.

The results haven’t been great. Flaherty’s heater has allowed a .382 wOBA (though the .333 xwOBA is more encouraging) and has a run value of 8. That’s not great.

But that’s just in the aggregate. The eye test tells us that his fastball command has been inconsistent from game to game.

So, while Flaherty is cutting his fastball more than ever, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is somewhat concerning to see his fastball shape change so much, and I have to wonder how much his arm health has affected that, but the pitch has a similar profile to the quality heaters thrown by Andre Pallante, Chris Stratton, and Drew VerHagen. I’m willing to chalk the pitch’s struggles up to command issues, not necessarily shape issues.

Take a look at where Flaherty threw his fastball in 2019:

Note the tight glove side concentration. Now take a peek at where he’s throwing the pitch this year:

Now that concentration is spread between the glove side and the arm side. And it’s also right over the center zones of the plate. That’s not great.

Flaherty’s fastball has a different shape now than it did in 2019 and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, his command of the pitch has wavered. Cutting a fastball can work, but not if command is all over the place.

Ryan Helsley - A Counter Example

I don’t want you to think that all pitchers should be trying to cut the ball, or even that cutting the ball is ideal. In fact, what’s ideal for a pitcher is going to depend on who he is, what comes naturally, and how much potential for change exists.

Let’s take Ryan Helsley as an example.

The flamethrower debuted in 2019 with a four-seam fastball that averaged 97.8 mph but wasn’t effective (.381 wOBA). Why is that? The answer lies in the spin data (which unfortunately only goes back as far as 2020).

In 2020 Helsley’s four-seamer had 77% active spin. He was cutting the ball. The problem is that he wasn’t doing it effectively. The pitch had 6.9 inches of run and 13.4 inches of drop. Both of those numbers were about average.

Because Helsley was cutting the ball he wasn’t getting a ton of carry. But he also wasn’t really getting much cut either. This made his fastball ineffective despite it’s velocity and led to a .393 wOBA against the pitch.

But Helsley improved. And he didn’t do it by cutting the ball more effectively, he did it by increasing his active spin to give the pitch more carry.

Ryan Helsley’s Fastball Improvement

Year Active Spin Vertical Movement (in) wOBA Whiff Rate
Year Active Spin Vertical Movement (in) wOBA Whiff Rate
2020 77 13.4 0.393 14.0%
2021 81 11.7 0.330 15.7%
2022 86 9.5 0.212 28.6%
2023 91 9.0 0.318 26.3%

The answer isn’t always to add cut. Sometimes pitchers with low active spin fastballs are able to add carry and if that’s an option, it should be explored. But that’s not an option for everyone. The point here is that each pitcher is unique and what works for one may not work for the next.


So now that I’ve discussed 4 examples of Cardinals pitchers who cut their fastballs and one example of a pitcher who succeeded by moving away from that strategy, I have a few takeaways.

Every pitcher is unique

There is no cookie cutter approach to developing pitchers and pitchers shouldn’t be put into a box. Each one has unique skills and a different way of throwing the ball and that means that they have different paths to success.

Just because fastballs with a ton of carry have had a lot of success doesn’t mean that every pitcher should be crammed into that box. Some pitchers can’t get a lot of carry on their fastballs and that’s okay. There are other ways to succeed.

On the other hand, there are some pitchers who are cutting their fastballs but have the potential to add carry and develop a devastating fastball. Ryan Helsley is the example here.

It all comes down to a coach/organization being able to work with an individual player, understand how he throws, and develop the optimal strategy. That looks different for everyone.

Cutting a fastball isn’t bad...

Not every pitcher is built to maximize active spin and get a tremendous amount of carry. Some pitchers struggle to get active spin on their fastballs and instead of scrapping the four-seamer or trying to squeeze out every ounce of active spin, it can be better to lean into what makes the pitcher unique and throw a cutting fastball.

This works well when cut is maximized. You’ll notice that of the four pitchers with cutting fastball discussed above, VerHagen has the most horizontal movement at 2.7 inches. That’s effective cut. Not every cutting fastball has that much cut.

...If it’s done effectively

Not all cutting fastball are good. The amount of cut makes a big difference. One of the hallmarks of a true cutting fastball is that they don’t get a ton of carry. Throwing a fastball without carry and without enough cut just makes it easier to hit.

Someone like Jake Woodford who gets 80% active spin on his four-seamer and 6 inches of horizontal break (only 24% below average) is living in the danger zone. That’s too low of an active spin to have an effective riding fastball but he doesn’t cut the ball enough either and that leaves him with an ineffective four-seamer that’s been smacked around this year (.751 wOBA).

It’s okay for a pitcher to lean into his tendency to have low fastball active spin, but he can’t do it halfway. If a pitcher wants a cutting fastball, he needs to get as much cut as possible to avoid throwing meatballs.

Command matters (obviously)

Drew Verhagen’s fastball didn’t add a significant amount of cut but it has improved with better command. Jack Flaherty on the other hand, is cutting his fastball more than ever but hasn’t been effective with the pitch due to spotty command.

Just like everything in pitching, shape is important but command makes a difference.

Weirdness is good

Pitchers should lean into what makes them unique. Andre Pallante has a unique fastball with a weird movement profile that gets a ton of ground balls and he, correctly, throws it 23 of the time.

Pitching isn’t about doing what makes other pitchers successful, it’s about doing what makes you special. Plenty of pitchers can have success with fastballs that carry up in the zone but that’s not the pitcher that Pallante is. Instead of throwing the “trendy” fastball, he focuses on what makes him different and has a lot of success with that.

Hitters don’t see too many cutting fastballs, so pitchers who can throw them effectively can lean on them a bit more than pitchers who have more traditional, vanilla fastballs. Pallante throwing fastball after fastball makes sense. The same is probably true for Chris Stratton as it’s been his best pitch anyways.

I still believe the Cardinals throw too many fastballs but a fastball-heavy approach is certainly okay for some pitchers, like those who can cut their fastballs effectively and those like Ryan Helsley, who throw hard fastballs with a lot of carry, and those like Jordan Hicks, who throw hard fastballs with a lot of run.

Thanks for reading, VEB.