It is hard to talk about James Shields and not talk about pitch selection and sequencing. Depending on the mood, some may say Shields should throw more changeups and fewer fastballs. When that doesn’t work, the call is for more fastballs and less of something else. Typically, that something else is the cutter. Meanwhile, when paired with a better pitch, the cutter can leave opposing batters feeling handcuffed.
Sometimes misclassified as a slider, Shields’ cutter has some slider-like movement, but is thrown with fastball velocity. In 2012, he is throwing the pitch more and with increased velocity. It has also become a nice complementary piece to his signature changeup; especially in two-strike counts. According to Baseball Prospectus, Shields’ cutter has been extremely effective as a put-away pitch. Using put-away percentage—the percentage of batters struck out when using a pitch with two strikes—Shields’ cutter has the third-best percentage in the entire major leagues behind Luke Hochevar and Cliff Lee, and slightly edges his changeup in a head-to-head match-up (23.5 percent to 21.7 percent).
This is not to suggest the cutter is a better pitch than the changeup. But, rather, to show how a mediocre pitch has been enhanced with proper usage. In two-strike counts, hitters on both sides of the plate can expect to see Shields’ super changeup. The pitch is so good that even when you are expecting it, it is extremely difficult to make contact with—let alone solid contact. That said, when you are expecting a changeup, and receive a cutter, it can lead to mistimed swings or have a David Price-like paralysis effect.
Both the cutter and changeup are designed to look like fastballs out of the hand. The changeup arrives with slower velocity, but with a downward fade. Shields is throwing the cutter with fastball velocity, but with late movement horizontally. By pairing the changeup and the cutter in two-strike counts, Shields puts the opposition in a tough position. They can sit on the harder pitch and risk an early swing on changeup. Or they can wait for the softer stuff only to be late on a cutter or left frozen when the pitch does not move as they expected.
Here are just two examples of that process:
On June 28th, Shields faced Detroit Tigers’ catcher Alex Avila to lead off the fifth inning. Shields started the at-bat with curveball for a called strike before jumping ahead 0-2 when Avila whiffed on a cutter. Looking for the kill, Shields threw a pair of nearly identical changeups out of the strike zone. The left-handed hitter took both to even the count 2-2. On the fifth pitch, Shields dotted the outside corner with an 89 mph cutter that froze Avila and ended plate appearance.
In his next start, Shields faced the New York Yankees. On two separate occasions he struck out right-handed hitting Alex Rodriguez with a cutter. After freezing Rodriguez with a cutter in the first, Shields earned a swinging strike in the fourth.
The Rays’ righty started the second encounter with a pair of cutters: one fouled and one taken for a ball. His next pitch was a changeup outside of the zone taken for ball two. He went back to the cutter—coaxing a foul ball—to even the count. With blood in the water, Shields threw a changeup low and inside; however, Rodriguez took the pitch to run the count full. Instead of a traditional straight fastball on 3-2, Shields threw a cutter up and away, resulting in a whiff to complete the punch-out.
Two pitches out of hundreds thrown does not paint a complete picture. Meanwhile, the two examples show how-and-why the cutter has been an effective put-away pitch for Shields even though some have wanted him to put the pitch away.