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All hail the cut fastball, the secret to the Giants’ success

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From Johnny Cueto to Jeff Samardzija, it's time to look at the new pitch craze that's sweeping the region.

Kenny Karst-USA TODAY Sports

For years, we’ve marveled at Madison Bumgarner’s slider-cutter-what-have-you. It doesn’t matter what you call it, really. It’s a pitch that’s thrown hard, though a little slower than his standard fastball, and it bores in on right-handed hitters. Sounds like a slider to me (and the lasers agree), except the break is late and subtle enough to consider it a cutter. Because this site is run by a 10-year-old manchild, we settled on slutter.

It was a distinctive pitch in a lot of ways, and it wasn’t something we had seen a lot of. Tim Lincecum was more fastball/change/breaking ball, as was Matt Cain. Before Ryan Vogelsong showed up, the only Giants pitcher who used a cutter was Brian Wilson. Then Vogelsong used it to great effect for a couple years. Then the Giants traded for Jake Peavy.

Look at this bunch now. They’re all hopped up on cutters. Won’t anybody think about the children?

The Giants are a team of cutterers now, though. Cain is the only holdout, unless you really want to whip out a switchblade and argue that Madison Bumgarner’s pitch is a true slider. Between Peavy and Bumgarner, the Giants were trending toward a cutter-heavy staff over the last two seasons, and then came this last offseason, when they brought in Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto. Now they’re in deeper than almost any other team in baseball. They throw more cutters than any team in the National League, and that’s if you don’t include Bumgarner’s slutter.

It was ESPN that nudged this into my consciousness, posting two articles in two days about a Giants pitcher and his love of the cutter. The first was from ESPN Stats and Info, which is probably the birth name of a human being who has been groomed for this exact job for years, and it’s about how Cueto was masterful against the Brewers on Wednesday:

The pitch is not intended as a swing-and-miss pitch. He got one missed swing against it. But it's designed to limit hard contact, and it did. For the second straight start, he didn't allow a hard-hit ball (based on video review) against that pitch, which he threw 33 times.

The second was from Eno Sarris, who has carved out an outstanding niche as the official investigative reporter of pitching nerdiness. He talked to Jeff Samardzija, who was supposed to abandon the cutter that hurt him last year. Instead, he doubled down, and we’re glad that he did.

"I kept throwing that slider and sinker away. Got through the lineup twice, one or two hits in five innings, and then the sixth inning came. And they all just started going boom, to the opposite field -- because I never went in."

He learned his lesson. Last year, no team threw fewer fastballs on the inside part of the plate than the White Sox. But this year, no starting pitcher has thrown more cut fastballs in on lefties than Samardzija.

It’s not a Dave Righetti thing, as you can tell from that 2010 staff. At least, it’s not something he imposes on every starting pitcher who comes through San Francisco, whether they like it or not. This preponderance of cutters just sort of ... happened. And he’s clearly encouraging it, as you would expect, because it's working.

It makes sense, too. If you’re going to be a team that relies on cutters, you probably want a strong infield defense. While cut fastballs don’t produce grounders quite as much as their bastard cousin, the sinker, they still lead to more pitches beat into the ground when they’re working right. The Giants might have the best defensive infield in baseball.

Better living through cutterstry also makes sense when you have a catcher who can pull the pitch back into the strike zone, and Buster Posey might be the best at that, too. He’s leading the world in framing right now, both according to StatCorner and ESPN, and I’m not sure if that’s because he has so many cutters to work with right now, or because he’s making the cutters even better. Either way, it’s a healthy relationship.

Add it all up, and the Giants are uniquely positioned to enjoy the ripe fruits from this particular cutter tree. All hail the cut fastball! The Giants are in first place because they can pitch, and they’re doing it with a pitch that we should probably get used to.