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One Big Question: Can Matt Andriese’s cutter be an effective third pitch?

A major breakout likely isn’t on the horizon, but a mini one could be.

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. We kick things off today with Matt Andriese.

The Question: Can Matt Andriese use his cutter to elevate his performance to a new level?

The Red Sox have made a few mid-tier additions over the last month or so by bringing in Martín Pérez, Enrique Hernández, Garrett Richards and Adam Ottavino. None of these guys are major splashes, but they are the biggest additions made this winter. Prior to the new year, the sparse activity was bringing in role players like platoon bat Hunter Renfroe and the man we’re going to discuss today: Matt Andriese.

Andriese is a former Ray and Angel who is expected to play something of a swingman role for the Red Sox this year. Barring injuries in camp, he’ll likely start the year as the sixth or seventh man on the rotation depth chart depending on how much Tanner Houck’s likely start of the year in Triple-A will be due to wanting him to get work in Worcester and how much is due to simply him having options and Nick Pivetta not. Either way, Andriese will pitch out of the bullpen until he’s needed in the rotation, and that is an extra important role this season with pitchers coming off a shortened 2020 and teams likely looking to get some extra rest where possible.

Over his career, Andriese has basically been who he is, which is to say he’s been a little worse than league-average. Last summer was the righty’s sixth season in the majors, and in that time he has had just one season where his ERA- (a park-adjusted ERA metric where 100 is average, below 100 is better than average and over 100 is worse than average) did not land between 102 and 107. That is remarkably consistent. The peripherals have jumped around a bit more, but the last two seasons they’ve actually been better than average each year.

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

So, as we look ahead to this year, it’s kind of hard to expect anything other than an average-to-slightly-below-average performance from Andriese, which is fine if not super exciting. Players who are so consistent typically don’t find a new level entering their age-31 season, which Andriese is. But there is one reason to expect we could see a different kind of guy this year than we’ve seen over the last few, and it comes down the repertoire.

Over the last few years, Andriese has mainly been a two-pitch pitcher with his fastball and changeup carrying the load. The fastball typically sits in the low 90s, and while it won’t miss a ton of bats he can command it fairly well. The changeup is the better offering, and last year he actually threw it exactly the same amount as the fastball. Those are the two main ptiches, and then he’s mixed in a curveball at times as well, though it’s been a clear third pitch and one that allows more contact than you’d like to see off a breaking ball.

And so that brings us to the cutter, which used to be a bigger part of his repertoire earlier in his career. Andriese started more consistently earlier in his career, and in those days he had a more extensive arsenal, which is to be expected. But he had ditched the cutter following the 2016 season, until last year. In fact, before the season even started he mentioned that he was going to start using the pitch again. That was with the expectation he was going to start more often than he did, though he ended up pitching in relief for all but one outing in 2020.

Still, the offering did make something of a comeback for him, albeit not in a major role. According to Baseball Savant, Andriese threw 41 cutters in the 2020 season, making up just 8.2 percent of his total pitches. That is not exactly a representative sample, but it is enough to get some feel for how effective the pitch can be, or at least rule out the possibility of it being unusable. The cutter induced a whiff rate of 29 percent, a higher rate than any individual pitch of his with a usage rate of at least five percent over the last two seasons, and opponents managed an average exit velocity of just 89 mph against it. Again, the numbers can be taken with a grain of salt given the sample, but they at least demonstrated the potential for effectiveness.

The most important thing about his cutter may be that he used it almost exclusively against righties, with just four of the 41 cutters being used against lefties. For a pitcher like Andriese, having this kind of pitch is important. Now, to be fair to him he is able to effectively use his changeup against same-handed hitters better and more confidently than most pitchers, but an offspeed pitch is still typically best used against opposite-handed pitchers. Having this kind of go-to pitch in the cutter that can break off the plate away from righties could be the kind of adjustment he had needed, especially since he’s never seemed particularly enamored with his curveball.

For the most part, I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of change from Andriese in 2021 compared to his career to this point. He’s been who he is for a long time, and it’s usually a safer bet to go with history rather than betting on change. He’ll almost certainly lean most heavily on his fastball and changeup heading into this year just as he has done in the last few. That said, look out for the cutter to be a bigger part of his game and a third-pitch weapon to use against righties. It would be foolish to think it would lead to some sort of star turn for the veteran, but even just finishing with above-average results would be a step forward we’ve never seen from him over his career.