Last year, just before the 2015 season spiraled into the void, I went to Toledo to watch the Toledo Mud Hens in an afternoon game. Specifically, I went to watch Justin Verlander pitch his final rehab start before rejoining the Tigers.
There were some odd sights. A Tyrannosaurus Rex brought Verlander the ball for the game's first pitch. He (Verlander, not the T-Rex) wore a strange beige uniform with mock Velociraptor slashes across it. American Pharoah's Triple Crown winning performance in the Belmont Stakes was broadcast on the video board before the game to probably the loudest roars of the day. A pitcher who hadn't been in a minor league game in a decade had to find the, ahem, pageantry of the minor league game, a bit of a surreal experience.
During his outing, Verlander threw some cutters. They were 89-90 miles per hour, with recognizable arm-side movement. He only threw a couple of them, but the pitch definitely raised eyebrows from several other observers in the crowd. Apart from nascent pain in the butt Francisco Lindor, Verlander shut down the Columbus Clippers' offense, and in five days time returned to his post at the top of the Tigers' rotation.
And then Verlander didn't throw it the rest of the season. Maybe he mixed in a few here or there, but as he rode his fastball to a spectacular second half, the cutter wasn't a part of it.
Yet it was obviously still a work in progress. On Tuesday against the Philadelphia Phillies, he finally broke it out in a big way.
That's a pretty nasty pitch. Especially when it's mixed in between 94 mile-per-hour fastballs screaming in on your hands. At his best, Verlander straightens hitters up with good velocity and elite movement. Every batter in the box knows they have to be ready to climb the ladder instantly to get to the fastball. The makes the secondary pitches all the better, as they start on the same plane as the high fastball and then spill away below the zone. Now you mix in a late moving cutter and hitters may be caught badly in between.
In his post-game interview on Tuesday, Verlander said the pitch was a slider when it was down, and a cutter up. The slider version breaks down more than to Verlander's glove side, diving under the bat of Ryan Howard. The cutter breaks on more of a horizontal plane and rides away from a right-handed hitter in this case, or in on the hands of a left-handed one.
A cutter and a slider are essentially two slightly different takes on the same pitch. In Verlander's case this is the same grip with slightly different action and angle on it. Keep in mind that Verlander's slider has averaged around 85 mph throughout his career. The new version is coming in at 89-90 mph.
While Verlander was working on the pitch last season, the company he's currently keeping are big proponents of it as well. Tigers' pitching coach Rich Dubee worked with Roy Halladay during the latter half of his career when his cutter became the weapon that sustained his dominance. So Verlander has pretty highly regarded expertise with the cutter to draw on. Jordan Zimmermann also uses his hard slider in basically the same way as Verlander did on Tuesday. He bends his slider up and in on the hands of left-handed hitters, while throwing more of a traditional down-and-away version to righthanders.
It remains to be seen how big a part of Verlander's game the cutter will become. Feel for it may come and go as he tries to master it. However, Verlander isn't the sort of guy to just try a new pitch after a few weeks of experimentation. You can bet he's reasonably confident in it to start breaking it out in games with regularity.
So far this season, Verlander has had an electric fastball. Only recently have his secondary pitches rounded into form. And since they have he's looked about as good as we've ever seen him. Now he's added a new wrinkle to his game with flashes of a very good-looking cutter. If it is here to stay, we have one more reason to believe that the Tigers' ace has a fantastic second act yet ahead of him.