How Erick Fedde went from not using a box cutter to betting on it

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It was in the visitors’ enclosure at Wrigley Field in August 2017 that Erick Fedde first threw a cutter. Mike Maddux, then the Washington Nationals pitching coach, asked Fedde, then a rookie preparing for his second career start, if he had ever tried one. Fedde hadn’t, so Maddux showed him a catch and suggested he give Matt Wieters some cuts. Wieters, a veteran receiver, grabbed the pitch and nodded in approval, giving Fedde the confidence to try some against the Chicago Cubs.

The right-hander allowed four runs on eight hits and struck out seven. He made another Nationals appearance that summer, if not for Syracuse’s Class AAA leaders. And while the cutter didn’t stay in his arsenal – at least not right away – the idea was planted in his head, which eventually led to a big spike in usage. Fedde, now 29 and in his sixth season, throws his cutter almost 30% of the time. Nationals manager Dave Martinez repeatedly called it his best pitch.

Most recently, Fedde threw six scoreless innings against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. On the season, he has a 4.46 ERA and clicked for much of May.

“Once he figured out who he is and how he wants to attack hitters, his stuff was good enough to come out and now he doesn’t mess around with different things,” Martinez said. “That’s who he is and he’s getting better.”

As a star at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, a 2014 Nationals first-round pick, and a top prospect thereafter, Fedde has focused on two areas: low, hard pellets and a breaking ball. When needed, he also mixed a change, but the third pitch never caught up to the others. So with the cutter in mind, and with a grip refined thanks to the help of Max Scherzer, Fedde leaned on it more late last season. Then he took the advice of the club’s analysis staff, nearly leveling his lead, curve and cutter rates this year.

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His pitch breakdown in 2020, according to the analytics site FanGraphs (eight starts, three relief appearances): 55.5% lead, 18.4% break points, 16.6% cutters, 9.5% substitutions.

In 2021 (27 starts, two relief appearances): 43.3% sinkers, 23.4% breaking balls, 23.1% cutters, 10.1% substitutions.

In 2022 (14 starts): 35.1% shots, 31.4% breaking balls, 29.5% cutters, 3.9% substitutions.

“I had thrown two pitches my whole life and was completely dominant at the lower levels,” Fedde said this month. “And then it’s like I got to the big leagues and I just didn’t see success. I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘I don’t want to be mediocre or bad anymore. So you have to start changing things.

So why was the cutter effective for Fedde? Based on feedback from receivers and teammates, Fedde said the pitch appears to be rising because hitters expect it to drop more. Instead, high cutters break side-by-side – left-handed, away right-handed – and complete his lead. When thrown well, pitches tunnel together, following the same path to the plate before shooting off in opposite directions. Fedde also became accustomed to using his cutter against lefties and righties, despite originally being designed as an option for blocking left-handed hitters.

The increase has meant fewer sorties on the ground and more in the air. To explain this, Fedde says hitters swing lower where they think the pitch will end, moving their barrels down the ball. And the cutter movement intensified in the spring of 2019, when Fedde played with Scherzer at the Nationals facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. Scherzer taught Fedde his hands-on and holistic approach. The main takeaway for Fedde was cocking his wrist at an almost 90-degree angle, which felt like he was pushing the pitch while releasing it.

Fedde’s next steps are to limit fouls, finish batters, and throw fewer pitches in the first innings, allowing him to go further in games. The cutter has not been a symptom of these problems, as advanced metrics consider it his most effective weapon. But it could be part of the solution.

“Three years ago I legitimately thought the top of the zone was my total enemy and now it’s my best friend,” Fedde said. “This is how the league is and I had no choice but to adapt and make big changes. I have to keep doing this. The alternative was to lose my place.