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Mariano Rivera and John Smoltz both had Hall of Fame careers closing out ball games in the 9th inning when their teams had a lead. Smoltz did it with his famous wipeout slider while Rivera did it with his devastating cutter. To the average baseball fan, a cutter and a slider may appear to be the same pitch with different names, but this couldn’t be more false.
The difference between a slider and a cutter is when and how much the pitch breaks. Both pitches break to the pitcher’s glove side, but a slider typically breaks earlier than a cutter and has a much larger break.
The slider is a variant of the curveball while a cutter is a variant of a fastball. Here is more analysis of the difference between the two pitches.
What is a Slider?
A slider is an offspeed pitch that breaks to the pitcher’s glove side and is often thrown with more velocity than a curveball but less velocity than a fastball.
The break of an offspeed pitch is often described using the numbers on a clock as an indicator. For example, a 12-6 curveball is one that has a straight downward break. It is as if it breaks from the 12 on the clock down to the 6. Many pitching coaches call this the pitch’s “shape”.
Using this same visual, a slider typically has a 2-8 shape for a right-handed pitcher and a 10-4 shape for a left-handed pitcher. Unlike a curveball that often comes up out of a pitcher’s hand at release, a good slider comes out of the pitcher’s hand in the same tunnel as his fastball.
Here is a video from Rob Friedman AKA “Pitching Ninja” on Twitter that shows what a slider looks like and how it breaks.
What is a Cutter?
A cutter (sometimes called cut fastball) is an offspeed pitch that breaks to the pitcher’s glove side and is often thrown with more velocity than a slider but less velocity than a fastball.
The cutter typically has the same 2-8 or 10-4 shape as the slider, but there is just much less of it. It comes out of the same tunnel as a pitcher’s fastball but breaks much later than the slider.
For some pitchers, the cutter can have more of a 3-9 or 9-3 shape, but most of the best cutters have some sort of downward break on top of the side-to-side movement. This downward break is what pitching coaches call “depth”. (Watch this video from YouGoProBaseball.com that explains more about depth and how it helps pitchers.)
Cutters do not have as much depth as sliders, but they do have some depth intended to create weak contact from hitters.
When Would a Pitcher Throw a Slider?
An effective slider looks like a fastball out of the pitcher’s hand and then breaks off before reaching home plate. Because of this, pitchers often throw sliders in situations where they believe the hitter is expecting a fastball. The change in speed and the shape of the pitch creates confusion for the hitter.
The slider is often referred to as a “swing-and-miss pitch”. This usually happens because the hitter starts his swing at what he believes to be a fastball, and by the time the pitch breaks, he is too far along in his swing to stop it.
This pitch is also one of the most popular pitches to use as what many call a “chase pitch”. This is when the pitcher will purposefully throw a pitch outside of the strike zone when ahead in the count (0-2 or 1-2) to try and get the hitter to chase it. When throwing a slider in this situation, the pitcher will start the pitch in the zone and let it break out of the zone to get the hitter to swing and miss.
The slider does not have to be used solely as a swing-and-miss or chase pitch. Sometimes, it can be an effective “freeze pitch”. The purpose of this type of pitch is to get the hitter to freeze and take the pitch for a called strike.
When using the slider as a freeze pitch, it is important for the pitcher to start the pitch at the hitter and let it break over the plate. The goal here is to get the hitter to think the pitch is going to be a ball inside before it eventually breaks in for a strike.
Sliders are often most effective in matchups that feature right-handed pitchers vs. right-handed batters and left-handed pitchers vs. left-handed batters, but pitchers with well above average sliders often find that this pitch is effective against all hitters.
When Would a Pitcher Throw a Cutter?
While the slider is most often used as a swing-and-miss pitch, the cutter is most often used to generate weak contact from the hitter. Like the slider, it looks like a fastball out of the pitcher’s hand and breaks late.
As said earlier, the cutter has the same shape as a slider although it does not have as much depth. The lack of depth is what makes it more of a weak contact pitch than a swing-and-miss pitch. The cutter typically breaks after the hitter has already committed to his swing causing the pitch to miss the sweet spot of the bat.
Unlike the slider, the cutter is usually more effective in right on left and left on right matchups because the ball cuts into the hitter causing him to get jammed and make contact closer to the bat’s handle. (This is why pitchers who throw cutters get a lot of broken bats.)
With that being said, an above average cutter has been known to cause some swings and misses as well as some called strikes from time to time. Like any other pitch, the more depth it has, the more likely it is to cause a swing and a miss.
Cutters are most often found in a relief pitcher’s arsenal. It is a difficult pitch to throw consistently over several innings, so many starters prefer the slider or curveball over the cutter. It is often most effective when paired with a high velocity fastball, and since relievers these days often pitch at high velocities, it is natural for them to look to add pitches that compliment their strengths to their pitch selection.
What Does a Slider Grip Look Like?
First and foremost, there is no one way to grip any pitch. However, there are some similarities that most all slider grips have in common.
The middle finger and the thumb are the most important fingers when it comes to throwing a slider. Adequate pressure on the middle finger allows the pitcher to get on the side of the baseball to create the glove side break. The thumb placement allows for the pitcher to have control of the break.
How the fingers are placed on the seams of the baseball is equally important. Using the seams of the ball is what allows the pitcher to generate the appropriate spin on the pitch to make it break. Some pitchers prefer to use some of the seam, and some prefer to use all of it, but all pitchers use the seam in some way to throw a slider.
Check out this video of Rob Friedman on Twitter interviewing Yankees pitcher Adam Ottavino about his slider grip. In this video he describes the role his fingers and his wrist angle play in creating the proper break on his slider.
What Does a Cutter Grip Look Like?
The middle finger and thumb still play an important role in gripping a cutter, but the index finger is a little more involved in this pitch. Since the cutter is a variant of the fastball, it is important for the pitcher to stay on top and slightly on the side of the baseball. The index finger is used to help stay on top of the ball.
Like all pitches, there is no one way to throw a cutter. Most pitchers, however, use their fastball grip and move their middle and index fingers together and slightly to the side of the ball to throw their cutter. This allows for the ball to come out of the same tunnel as the fastball but create the proper spin necessary to get the proper shape of the pitch.
Here is a video from one of the best closers in baseball history Mariano Rivera explaining how he throws his cutter. Rivera made a living throwing his cutter to help him close out games for the Yankees.
Frequently Asked Questions
What made Mariano Rivera’s cutter so effective?
Rivera’s cutter basically defied the laws of physics with its late break. It was virtually impossible for hitters to determine what pitch he was throwing thanks to the similar spin on both his fastball and cutter. This video explains the mechanics behind his deadly pitch.
Are sliders and cutters safe for young pitchers to throw?
Sliders and cutters are both safe for young pitchers to throw if they are thrown correctly. It is often believed that throwing breaking balls at a young age can lead to injury, and that is somewhat true. Oftentimes, young pitchers are not capable of throwing breaking balls without twisting their wrist or elbow to make the pitch break.
The break of the pitch is caused by the grip on the seams, not by snapping the wrist. Many coaches do not trust their young pitchers to throw their sliders or cutters correctly, so they just tell them to avoid the pitches altogether. When pitchers reach the age of 14, they should probably start learning how to correctly throw breaking pitches.