With a scoreless ninth inning last night in Atlanta, new Washington Nationals’ closer Mark Melancon has retired 23 of the 27 batters he’s faced since he was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When the 31-year-old right-hander has talked about the turning point for him in his career, he’s pointed to the development of his cutter, as he did in an MLB Network Radio interview following the trade that brought him to the Nationals last month when he was asked what changed for him once he got to the Pirates and his career took off.
“I think just trusting my cutter and throwing it more often and learning how to throw it,” Melancon explained.
“When to throw it, why to use it inside,” he said, “which is back door to guys and just really learning how to throw that pitch.”
“I think location is always key,” he told reporters after joining the Nationals, “making sure you hit your spots, and for me the cutter has been a very good pitch for me, mixed with the curveball and two-seam fastball, but my cutter has been predominantly the best change for me.”
It’s a pitch he’d thrown his whole career, and he learned it from a pitcher who made a career of throwing the pitch.
“I was in the pen with Mariano [Rivera],” Melancon said, referring, of course, to the New York Yankees’ closer he worked alongside early in his career.
“I got to watch that a lot from him and just sit behind the plate, sit behind him pitching, and not only did I notice how important the cutter and the movement and when to throw it in, backdoor it and all that stuff, but just his location and how important that was.”
He throws the cutter the majority of the time now (429 times out of 706 pitches so far in 2016) and opposing hitters have a .243 AVG against the pitch, up a bit from .222 and .200 in the previous two seasons.
Nats’ skipper Dusty Baker talked recently about what makes the pitch so difficult for hitters.
“Where you see it is not where it ends up,” Baker explained.
“Just like a slider, when I first got in, I was 18 years old in Double-A and I came back and I said, ‘Man, what is that pitch?’ I’d never seen that pitch in high school. All I saw was a curveball. When I went to swing at it, it would like move right at the time.”
The timing of the cutter’s late movement, Melancon’s explained in the past, is the key.
As he told Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Travis Sawchik in Spring Training in 2015, he started to work on developing the pitch in earnest after talking about it with Rivera when he became, “intrigued with the idea that if the cutter breaks late enough the batter will never see the movement since... with its velocity, the batter’s eye and brain and can’t relay signals fast enough in time to inform a swing.”
“Everything was designed to look like a fastball,” Baker continued.
“And then if it’s away from you, last minute it moves away and if you’re left-handed, at the last minute it cuts in on your hands. But everybody can’t throw the cutter.
“And everybody can’t throw the cutter without hurting their arms. And so, Mariano Rivera, he perfected the cutter, and don’t forget that Melancon came from the Yankees before he went to the Pirates.
“I don’t know if there is any correlation, but I bet there is...”
There is, and it’s made all the difference on Melancon’s career.