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November 15, 2012

BP Unfiltered

Has Mariano Rivera's Cutter Rubbed Off on the Rest of the Yankees' Relievers?

by Ben Lindbergh

“How can I really teach this pitch if I can’t explain how it came to me in the first place?”—Mariano Rivera in March

If you've been reading your rumors, you know that the Yankees are mulling over how much to pay Mariano Rivera to return for one more season. It’s a sensitive scenario, much like the one the team faced with Derek Jeter two years ago: an iconic, face-of-the-franchise future Hall of Famer coming off a bad year and a big contract. The Yankees don’t want to alienate Rivera or their fans by seeking a substantial paycut, but they also don’t want to pay a 43-year-old closer recovering from a torn ACL the same $15 million salary he’s earned in each of the past five seasons. Stalemate!

The face-off won’t last for long: odds are Rivera re-signs for less guaranteed money, with incentive clauses that could kick in his total earnings up to their old range. But reading about the factors affecting the negotiations reminded me of something former player and current writer/analyst Doug Glanville tweeted during the ALDS:

If Glanville’s observation was accurate, it would change what the Yankees were willing to pay. A Rivera who can throw the trademark cutter might not be worth $15 million in 2013, but a Rivera who could teach the trademark cutter to his teammates, creating a renewable source of Riveras, would be worth much more than that. So, is there any evidence to suggest that Rivera can pass on the pitch?

First, some background: the Yankees’ bullpen has thrown many more cutters than any other bullpen over the past five seasons.

Highest Cumulative Cutter Usage by Team Bullpen, 2008-12

Team

Bullpen Cutter %

Yankees

19.9

Dodgers

10.5

Padres

10.4

Angels

9.4

Phillies

8.7

Of course, that’s not so surprising when you remember that Rivera throws cutters roughly 90 percent of the time. Remove Rivera, and the percentages plummet.

Yankees’ Year-by-Year Cutter Rates in Relief

Year

With Rivera

Excluding Rivera

2008

16.2

6.9

2009

22.8

13.6

2010

23.8

15.8

2011

23.0

14.7

2012

14.3

13.0

With Rivera, all five seasons ranked among the top 10 cutter percentage seasons by a bullpen since 2008. Without him, though, most of the cutters come from David Robertson, whose fastball movement is natural, not taught, and who told Bob Klapisch earlier this year that he couldn’t consistently replicate Rivera’s pitch. In fact, the Yankees had just four relievers who threw cutters in 2012:

Pitcher

Cutter %

Mariano Rivera

89.8

David Robertson

80.5

David Phelps

15.0

Cory Wade

3.8

Two of those relievers—Robertson and Phelps—pitched in Game Four of the ALDS, the one Glanville was watching when he sent out that tweet. But there were no other relievers on the roster who could do what they did. The Yankees haven't developed an in-house army of cutter-equipped clones, and there's been little sign in the last several seasons of a reliever who picked up a cutter in New York after pitching without one for a previous team.

The Cubs had 10 relievers who threw cutters this season. Two other teams (the Angels and Marlins) had nine, the Indians had eight, seven teams had seven, three had six, five had five, and six had four. (That’s 25 teams, in case you weren’t counting, so five more had fewer.) If the number of Yankees relievers throwing cutters in 2012 was unusual, it was unusually low.

Much as the Yankees might want to see Rivera’s cutter carry on after its creator retires, there's little evidence that its magic can be mass produced. The team should pay him for his marketing appeal and his pitching, not for his dubious powers as a pitching coach.

Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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