Going Deep: How Hitters Handling Cutters and Sliders are Shaping the Playoff Picture

Tim Jackson takes a deep dive on which teams and players are faring best against the league's most prominent breaking ball.

“If they pick their nose before a slider, we know it.”

Andy Barkett, assistant hitting coach for the Red Sox, said that this past weekend at the ninth annual Saberseminar in Boston, in response to an audience question about how the team prepares for upcoming matchups. In general, it’s a fascinating peek into just how much major league teams have the ability to anticipate. Specifically, it’s a statement we shouldn’t let pass with only a giggle. 

We know sliders are a big deal across the league right now. They’re being thrown more than ever, to the point where we’re seeing the largest year-over-year jump in a decade. How hitters handle them in any given moment could have a tremendous impact on a game and, as we come down the stretch, those micro moments mean more than they will all year. How teams have performed over the last month or so against them, whether better or worse, can tell us a lot.

Before we go any further, I want to acknowledge that for the purpose of this exercise, I included both sliders and cutters. There are two reasons: 1) pitch classification systems are imperfect, and 2) the pitches can often be classified as one or the other by pitchers who have the same movement on them. This said, let’s see which teams have seen the biggest improvements and drops in performance against them since the All-Star break. 

Team wOBA v. SL/FC Before ASB (rank) wOBA v. SL/FC in 30 days since ASB (rank) Rise/Fall in Rank
Athletics .274 (23) .344 (3) +20
Orioles .268 (26) .314 (11) +15
Marlins .248 (30) .297 (16) +14
Dodgers .286 (15) .339 (5) +10
Royals .265 (28) .284 (20) +8
League .287 .296 —-
Padres .289 (12) .268 (23) -11
Phillies .292 (11) .259 (24) -13
White Sox .283 (17) .227 (30) -13
Cubs .294 (10) .256 (25) -15
Pirates .303 (7) .236 (27) -20

There are a couple of things going on here that are worth taking the time to process by zooming out. One is that the 30 days since the break naturally have less data than the three-plus months of the season before them. So, sure, it’s interesting that wOBA against sliders and cutters is up across the league since the All-Star Game, but it’s also warmer, and so the ball is flying more. We can kind of expect that.

It’s tough, though, to know how to value that nine-point, leaguewide bump in wOBA against sliders and cutters. It’s the largest such margin since 2016. In the three seasons prior to 2019, it was only ever about three points. Will we see it drop in 2019 as we have in the past, even with prior juiced balls, or is this new ball really influencing offense that much?

We won’t be able to tell for sure until the season officially ends, but astrophysicist Meredith Wills has detailed just how much this ball is different. It’s never been rounder, smaller, or smoother, and the seams are half the height of those on the last iteration of the ball. If you’re in the educated-guess game, you might figure we won’t see much drop in wOBA against sliders and cutters because we’re not seeing anything like that at all in any context. Baseball in 2019 is truly wild. 

But back to the teams who are actually producing this data for us. The jumps in club performance against sliders and cutters couldn’t represent more polar ends of the spectrum. Collectively, they encompass the hopes of surging to compete. Below you’ll find how each win percentage has changed amid teams’ recent performance against the game’s most frequent breakers. Win percentage here can change a lot over the course of a game or two, so it’s best to think of it as a touchstone for performance more than a club’s being light-years better or worse.

Team Win% before ASB Win% since ASB
Athletics .579 .620
Orioles .303 .375
Marlins .375 .354
Dodgers .652 .700
Royals .329 .448

For the A’s, Mark Canha (.456) and Ramon Laureano (.452) are the ones handling sliders and cutters best. Our staff has covered the emergence of each guy—Daniel Port went deep on Laureano and Matt Wallach did so on Canhaand the changes appear legitimate. Are they this good? Everything in recorded history says probably not, but having hitters who are generating such quality contact against the most prevalent breaking pitches becomes as valuable as ever in the playoffs. The teams in the race at that point are often the ones with pitching staffs that can eat up lineups that are based more on an all-or-nothing approach.

Frankly, that’s what might make the Dodgers so utterly terrifying in the postseason. They already have the league’s second-best pitching staff, their offense already featured depth that might be best described to other teams as “pick your poison,” and now they’re hitting even better? Justin Turner appears to have returned to health (.499 wOBA against sliders and cutters since the break), while Max Muncy (.402) and MVP candidate Cody Bellinger (.389) are also giving pitchers hell. Combine them with platoon players like Will Smith and Alex Verdugo and spend a few minutes wondering how in the world any team could handle them. 

The Orioles, Marlins, and Royals are all in the thick of rebuilds. Those last two are still barely average or below at generating contact on sliders and cutters since the break, though, even with their improvements, and so it might not mean too much. However, the Orioles might be able to pry a silver lining or two out of a 30-day stretch like this, as turning Anthony Santander (.448 wOBA on sliders and cutters since the break) or Hansel Alberto (.434) into anything more than what they’ve been would be a huge developmental win. 

Team Win% before ASB Win% since ASB
Padres .483 .366
Phillies .520 .500
White Sox .477 .363
Cubs .544 .566
Pirates .494 .193

The fallers almost all represent anything but a silver lining. Let’s start with the team that appears to be the outlier, the Cubs. They’re still above .500, unlike any of the other teams on this part of the list. They lead the NL Central but are tied with the Cardinals, while the Brewers are still breathing down their necks. And they’ve had a terrible time on the road this year (23-37 record), which is where they’ll probably have to play more than not should they make the playoffs. Their lack of depth and performance under the hood lately probably doesn’t inspire as much confidence as their win-loss record. 

The White Sox are the only team out of the other four that probably wasn’t seriously pushing for some sort of wild-card spot. The last month might make it feel as though another light bulb has gone out on the lamp of their rebuild. Meanwhile, the Phillies, Padres, and Pirates have probably all fallen out of legitimate playoff contention. As of publishing, FanGraphs doesn’t project any of them to have better than a 10.9% chance of making the postseason. The Padres (.4%) and Pirates (0%) are all but afterthoughts. 

Each of these team performances hurt. The heart of the Phillies order has hit the skids, and the magnifying glass over Bryce Harper will continue to find a ray of sun if he can’t do better than the .197 wOBA on sliders and cutters since the break. The best players on the Padres have been carrying their weight, but complementary cogs like Francisco Mejia (.294) are still growing, while Wil Myers (.147) is still struggling against the influx of breakers he’s seeing. And then there’s the Pirates, where every player outside of Bryan Reynolds and Josh Bell have been well below average. 

It’s important to accept that each team’s ability to win games since the break isn’t exclusively because of their weighted on base average against sliders and cutters. It’s also hard not to consider how it’s a contributing factor. This kind of exercise can help us spot trends before they’re too big to ignore in the grand scheme of the league, it can also potentially identify players who are worth your time moving forward. If nothing else, it can provide insight on who’s picking up the ball best, and who might be communicating to their teammates how to do the same. 

(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him in the PL Discord, editing, managing, and podcasting with @BREAKINGPodPL here or writing at Baseball Prospectus.

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