For a retirement gift, the Baltimore Orioles paid appropriate homage to Mariano Rivera's cut fastball last week, presenting the right-hander with a bronzed sculpture of a ball breaking a bat.
The New York Yankees closer's trademark cutter, arguably the most devastating pitch of his generation, is thoroughly unique. No one's been able to copy it. It breaks so close to the plate, the batter has no time to adjust. It's especially brutal on left-handed hitters, running inside to attack their bats on the handle where the wood is most vulnerable to splintering.
"It's incredible what he's done with one pitch," says Toronto Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen, who also throws a cut fastball. "He's the best closer of all time, true professional, just dominant as they come. The one pitch, it's amazing. I couldn't live with just my cutter. He's got a gift. He's mastered spotting the pitch. I wish I had it. I wish I could learn his."
Rivera's retirement tour brings him to the Rogers Centre for the last time for a three-game series starting Tuesday. The Blue Jays are planning a pregame ceremony on Thursday to recognize his achievements.
Rivera, 43, came up with the Yankees in 1995 as a starter, became their full-time closer two seasons later, and he has now compiled 651 saves and 82 victories in the regular season, plus another eight wins and a stunning 42 saves in the postseason.
Among the many statistics supporting his National Baseball Hall of Fame candidacy, one number testifying to the cutter's stealth is: In his 1,278 1/3 innings pitched (regular season) – the vast majority in situations when a run or two would make a difference in a game – only 26 sacrifice bunts have been executed, 11 by left-handed hitters.
Against right-handed hitters such as Blue Jays veteran Mark DeRosa, Rivera's cutter darts away from them at the last instant. A student of hitting, DeRosa studies pitching tendencies to establish a reasonable certainty about the sort of pitch he will be facing during an at-bat.
But with Rivera, he says, it does not matter. Hitters know what's coming, and they are helpless to do anything about it.
"I wish everybody had a chance to stand in the batter's box for just one pitch because when it comes out of his hand, you really feel like it's going to hit you in the rib … and then it's gone," says DeRosa, who has one single in six at-bats against Rivera. "The movement is so late, and so different from everybody else's, that most of the time it's just unhittable."
Players have tried moving up in the batter's box, crowding the plate, moving away from the plate. Switch-hitters have resorted to hitting right-handed to negate the bat-shredding characteristic of the pitch to left-handers.
Baltimore slugger Chris Davis, a left-handed hitter who recently became the third player in history to combine 50 homers and 40 doubles in a single season, has two singles in seven at-bats against Rivera. Judging by tone of voice, he feels fortunate to have both.
"Pitches that seem like they're unhittable are pitches that disappear, and his cutter is one of them," he says. "You think it's right there but, the next minute, your bat is flying into the dugout."
Hitters use the word "disappear" a lot when describing Rivera's cutter probably because, to their eyes, that's exactly what the pitch does. The cutter is thrown essentially like a four-seam fastball, a pitch with the straightest trajectory to the plate. They are deceived by the late break which, according to Ken Fuld, a visual psychophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, comes at a point where the eye is unable to track it.
Fuld says the better hitters in the major leagues lose eye contact with the ball about five feet from the plate; they make bat-on-ball contact by mentally calibrating the track of the pitch, factoring in the spin on breaking pitches.
Rivera's cutter looks like it's going to be right here, and it ends up being over there.