“Give ’em the sweeper!”

Future Cubs fan

This analysis was helped in large part by Steven Pappas, a Cubs fan, future statistics major, and truly one of the better analytical minds in Cubs fandom. He serves as an analytics guru for North Side Bound. You can and should follow him on his Twitter account. He also writes for Diamond Digest.

Baseball is deep into a pitch revolution. The invention of the curveball and later the slider, the incorporation of fastballs pushing 100 mph, pairing four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone with top-spin curveballs, it’s a tale as old as the game itself where the constant cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters has led to constant innovation on the mound. Technology such as Rapsodo and Pitch Labs have hastened that process in recent years. The latest of the in-vogue pitches is the “Whiry” or “sweeper” slider.

The New Slider

The definition of a slider has evolved over the past several years. Historically a slider was a breaking ball thrown harder than a (author’s note – curveball), but one where it had less movement than a curveball. Traditionally this meant more movement horizontally (side to side), but still not as much downward movement as a curve. Sliders also more recently featured what is known as “gyro spin” or “bullet spin” where the ball produces little to no horizontal movement, but pure downward break due to gravity. This is due to the ball being thrown like a football with a nearly perfect spiral. It just drops due to gravity. Anderson Espinoza’s gyro slider is a good example of the pitch’s movement. You can see Espinoza’s gyro slider in the first pitch in this clip

More and more pitchers are incorporating sweeper sliders into their arsenal. The Dodgers, Yankees, Astros, and the Twins are a few of the strong player development programs that have embraced the sweeper revolution, but what does it mean to have a slider be called a sweeper? Lance Brozdowski of Marquee Sports Network attempted to answer that exact question. Brozdowski notes three key attributes in his definition of a sweeper.

  1. Seam orientation
  2. Velocity greater than 80 mph
  3. More than 10 inches of horizontal movement

I only disagree with the requirement that a specific seam orientation is required. I have always been of the belief that how we name pitches was in essence due to how they moved. Regardless, I certainly respect Lance’s position and think he makes excellent points.

The Cubs are believers in sweeper sliders now deploying them in Chicago (Ethan Roberts and Daniel Norris are two notable examples) and all throughout the minor leagues with a few names such as Max Bain, Jordan Wicks, and Riley Martin stand out as recent adopters.

A Ticket to (Cut)-Ride

Rapsodo and TrackMan along with high-speed cameras have led to even more in the way of new terminology to explain the previously unexplainable, which is how I was introduced to the concept of “cut-ride” (CR). Before we dive into what “cut-ride” is, it’s important to understand what each of the individual terms means with regard to pitching.

Cut: Fastballs with “cut” have natural movement to a pitcher’s glove side, meaning that if a righthander threw a cut fastball the pitch would move away from a right-handed hitter or in towards a left-handed hitter.

Carry or Ride: A four-seam fastball with carry or ride gives the illusion it is moving upwards. An overhand delivery ensures that a pitch can’t defy physics and actually move upwards, but a fastball with nearly perfect backspin will drop less and make it appear it’s moving upwards in the zone. For the analytically inclined, these have high “IVB” -Induced Vertical Break.

But “cut-ride” doesn’t imply the pitch has both cut and carry. In fact, it’s rather almost an illusion. A pitcher who throws their four-seam fastball with CR throws from a particular arm slot in which the perceived movement of the pitch coming out of the slot looks like it will be thrown with cut before staying more on a line than expected.

Let’s look at some quick numbers. The average MLB fastball runs approximately 7.5 inches. As we discussed above, a cut fastball moves to the glove side (so away from a righthanded batter from a RHP), but a CR fastball runs less and so gives the appearance of cut. I reached out to one of the best pitching resources on Twitter, Driveline instructor Chris Langin for his perspective.

Basically a cut-ride FB is a pitch with say league to above average carry (16+ for a fastball) and relative cutting action. It’s not an actual cut, but just relative to an average 4S. Per Chris Langin “The pitch rarely cuts to the point there is literal glove side action on it, but when the average four-seamer has 7.5″ of arm side run, a pitch that has say 2-3″ of arm side run gives the illusion of cutting in (or away) from a hitter given the scarcity of that profile”

Let’s look at an example from Caleb Kilian. The following pitch had 18 inches of vertical movement and only 3 inches of horizontal movement, giving the illusion of relative cut action.

What does this actually mean?

For pitchers such as Caleb Kilian, his four-seam fastball can play up because hitters see the pitch and expect it to have more run only for it to continue on a line. The pitch doesn’t move as expected and continues to play off his breaking pitches. You only need to look at how the batter reacts to the specific pitch.

Other examples of minor-league pitchers with cut-ride: Ben Leeper. Riley Martin has some fastballs with cut-ride characteristics.

Major league examples: Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele

Photo of Caleb Kilian by Dylan Heuer/Iowa Cubs