Mariano Rivera and the two-seam fastball

Swisher wins one for Pettitte
Are the Yankees working the count less?
Photo Credit: Andy King, AP

Over the last week or so, we’ve seen something strangely uncharacteristic from Mariano Rivera: he’s been rather ordinary. Following his twelve day stint on the shelf with a side issue, Mo has allowed five runs in seven games, which is usually a bad month for him. It’s a small sample (just 6.1 IP), but opponents had clobbered him for a .316 ISO this month prior to his two save effort yesterday. Rivera always has those one or two stretches a year when he appears human, but he never seemed to get hit around as hard as he did last week.

So as absurd as it seems, some fans were holding their breath when The Sandman came through the bullpen door to protect a pair of one run leads yesterday evening. He got the job done both times, though in the first game he saw a ball hit to the warning track, walked a guy, and gave up another hard hit ball that luckily was turned into a game ending double play. The second game went much better, with three routine ground outs making up his first 1-2-3 inning in five outings.

But something caught my eye yesterday, particularly during the first game of the one-and-a-half header: Mo was throwing a two seamer. Right from the start two, his first two pitches to J.J. Hardy didn’t dart away from the righty batter as they usually do, they ran back inside. It’s not often that Rivera throws something other than a cutter, especially not two pitches in a row. Those were the only two two-seamers he threw in that game (both were clocked at 91 mph), but he again broke out the pitch in a night cap, throwing two back-to-back to Delmon Young to record the final out (clocked at 93 and 92). You can see one of the two-seamers to Young here.

Both Hardy and Young and righthanded batters, so maybe Mo is having difficulty getting his cutter on the arm-side of the plate and went with someone else to get inside. Michael Cuddyer, another righty, saw nothing but cutters in his six pitch at-bat during the second game, but perhaps the scouting report says to pitch him away. Going back to Friday night against the Mets, Mo threw three two-seamers (one to each of the three righty batters he faced) out of 14 pitches, and during last Tuesday’s game against Boston he threw just a pair of two-seamers (one to Mike Lowell, one to Kevin Youkilis) out of 29 pitches. It’s not much, but seeing him double up on the pitch against Hardy and Young yesterday was definitely out of character.

It’s no secret that Mo’s lost some velocity through the years, especially after his shoulder surgery during the 2008-2009 offseason. That’s to be expected, he’s 40-years-old. What has been unexpected is the loss of horizontal movement on his cutter. The PitchFX data from FanGraphs is on the left, and you can see that as the velocity’s gone down, the break on the cutter has shortened up. None of us really cared because Mo was still an unstoppable force in the 9th inning, racking up sub-1.00 WHIPs and more than a strikeout per inning like business as usual. It’s a very real change though.

Perhaps the increased use of the two-seamer against righties is a way of changing up the scouting report to get by with a slightly less devastating cutter. Perhaps it’s just a small sample size aberration. Perhaps he’s been using it all along and I just haven’t noticed. It’s just odd to see Mariano throw a pitch, and not have it cut across the plate away from righties. When it comes back in on same-sided batters, it’s easy to notice. Of course, the biggest problem he’s been having of late is command, which is incredibly unusual for him. Mo can usually dot the i’s and cross the t’s with his cutter from 60-feet 6-inches, but he’s been leaving a lot of pitches in the happy zone recently. My guess (hope) is that it’s a function of the long layout from the side issue, and that he’s still rounding back into form.

I don’t see any kind of problem with him incorporating a new pitch into his repertoire; hell, it’ll probably make him even more brutally effective than before. Nine two seamers out of 70 total pitches (12.9%) across four outings is really nothing, but I’m definitely going to be paying attention to see if and when Mo turns back to the two-seamer from here on out.

Swisher wins one for Pettitte
Are the Yankees working the count less?
  • Stephen R – formerly tafka (sic)

    There’s been talk that the Pitch F(x) algorithm was tweaked, and that the horizontal movement data isn’t comparable to years past. This would explain why his cutter is showing less horizontal movement. Also, a piece on Rational Pastime showed that his cutter is generating MORE horizontal break in 2010 than in years past.

    • J-Doug

      Actually, Stephen, I noted that his cutter is generating more total break, and that data was only through April so it may have changed.

      • Stephen R – formerly tafka (sic)

        Thanks, I’ll email you a longer question about it.

  • Troy

    I actually remember Mo using the two seamer against (I think) Marco Scutaro in his first appearance of the season.

    So using a two seamer isn’t new as of this season.

  • Jake H

    He has used it at times. I remember one at bat against Frank Thomas where he got him to strike out on a inside 2 seamer when he was with the Jays. I think that he probably is using it a bit more to get people off the cutter.

  • pat

    Can’t wait for the changeup.

  • CS Yankee

    Always good to see an old dog learning new tricks.

    Too much has been said on the decline due to age to these key Yankees. I know this May has not been kind but Jeter (.330 in April), Mo (0.00 with 8 saves in April), Pettitte (5-0? in April) & Jorge (solid bat in April) should be given the benefit of doubt that others (Arod, Teix, etc.) recieve instead of playing the “age card”.

    Why does the age always becomes the focus when someone exceeds 35 versus these guys just regressing or slumping?

    • whozat

      Because in the VAST majority of cases, players decline with age. Yes, these are generational players, but their continued performance is an exceptional case. Tex gets the benefit of the doubt because he’s 30 and it’s normal for great players at 29 to continue to be great at 30. The others, ARod included, are reaching (or past) the age where most of their peers — ever — have declined, and many significantly.

    • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      This has to be the first time, ever, that someone has complained that Jeter, Mo, Pettitte and Posada aren’t being treated/regarded as well as A-Rod.

      • CS Yankee

        Just tired of the age reference in every single article when the player is 35+…hitting well despite his age…didn’t cover the glove side, age is catching up…ball hit off his foot, age…age…age

        Jeter in April = in a groove
        Jeter in May = slump
        Teix in April & half of May = really bad slump
        Teix in 10 games worth of May = normal self at the plate
        Cano in April = out of body experience
        Cano in May = getting lazy

        Moyer was washed up last year at 46, one incredible start and MSM thinks he’ll pitch another 3 years?

        Let’s wait and see what a few seasons stacked together equated to before a 0-for-9 slump means to find a new player.

  • A.D.

    My guess (hope) is that it’s a function of the long layout from the side issue, and that he’s still rounding back into form.

    This almost has to be it, and although I don’t have the stats to back this up, its not the first time Mo has struggled a bit when not getting normal work

  • Adam

    I also think that Mo has used the two-seamer at times (sometimes more frequently than others), especially to paint an outside or inside corner. It can be particularly effective in that way when hitters sit cutter all the time. That said, when his cutter is its sharpest, he probably uses the two-seamer infrequently at most.

  • JFH

    I remember Mo working on a changeup in Spring Training a few years ago. He whiffed a batter and then covered his mouth with his glove (apparently so no one could see him laughing). I have always wondered why he doesn’t throw the changeup once in a blue moon, to keep batters honest.

    • whozat

      Nick Swisher showed just yesterday what batters do to a poorly-executed changeup. Mo’s not going to get beat on a pitch he doesn’t feel confidence in.

      • pat

        Much like the Spansh Inquisition, nobody would be expecting a changeup. Even a bad one would likely be wildly swung over.

        • Templeton “Brendog” Peck

          +1 for monty python reference

    • Accent Shallow

      What I’ve read is that the change requires significantly different wrist movement than the cutter, so Mo doesn’t want to risk throwing off his feel for the cutter.

  • Jammy Jammers

    “Rivera always has those one or two stretches a year when he appears human, but he never seemed to get hit around as hard as he did last week.”

    I remember stretches in the mid-2000’s when the Sox and Orioles hit him around much much worse. Of course, it later came out that both teams were loaded with ‘roiders.

    • poster

      Yeah, I really didn’t think that comment was true. We had, like, the exact same discussion last year.

  • godfather

    the assessment of mo is right-on, i think; i would add that the umps have punked him on close calls everytime they’ve had the chance; in the thome at-bat the other day, it was costly (kubel); anyway, whatever happens with mo, we can be assured he’ll deal with it in his classy, dignified way; no stats or graphs can embellish that