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The short history of how Erick Fedde found his best pitch

Erick Fedde is throwing his cutter close to 30 percent of the time in 2022. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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It was in the visitors’ bullpen at Wrigley Field, back 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’d ever tried one. Fedde hadn’t, so Maddux showed him a grip and suggested he chuck a few cutters to Matt Wieters. Wieters, a veteran catcher, caught the pitch and nodded in approval, giving Fedde the confidence to try a few against the Chicago Cubs.

The righty allowed four runs on eight hits and struck out seven. He made one more appearance for the Nationals that summer, otherwise pitching for the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs. And though the cutter didn’t stick in his arsenal — at least not right away — the idea was planted in his head, eventually leading to a big usage spike. Fedde, now 29 and in his sixth season, is throwing his cutter almost 30 percent of the time. Nationals Manager Dave Martinez has 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 get outs and now he’s not messing around with different things,” Martinez said. “This is who he is and he’s getting better at it.”

As a standout at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, as the Nationals’ first-round pick in 2014 and a top prospect thereafter, Fedde focused on two pitches: low, hard sinkers and a breaking ball. When needed, he mixed in a change-up, too, but the third pitch never caught up to the others. So with the cutter in mind, and with a refined grip thanks to help from Max Scherzer, Fedde leaned on it more at the end of last season. Then he followed advice from the club’s analytics staff, nearly evening the rates of his sinker, curve and cutter this year.

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His pitch distribution in 2020, according to the analysis site FanGraphs (eight starts, three relief appearances): 55.5 percent sinkers, 18.4 percent breaking balls, 16.6 percent cutters, 9.5 percent change-ups.

In 2021 (27 starts, two relief appearances): 43.3 percent sinkers, 23.4 percent breaking balls, 23.1 percent cutters, 10.1 percent change-ups.

In 2022 (14 starts): 35.1 percent sinkers, 31.4 percent breaking balls, 29.5 percent cutters, 3.9 percent change-ups.

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

So why has the cutter been effective for Fedde? Based on feedback from catchers and teammates, Fedde said the pitch appears to rise because hitters expect it to drop more. Instead, the high cutters break side to side — in to lefties, away from righties — and complement his sinker. When thrown well, the pitches tunnel together, following the same path to the plate before darting in opposite directions. Fedde has also grown comfortable using his cutter against lefties and righties, whereas it was originally hatched as an option to jam left-handed batters.

The increase has meant fewer groundball outs and more in the air. To explain that, Fedde points to hitters swinging lower, to where they think the pitch will end up, moving their barrels toward the bottom of the ball. And the cutter’s movement was sharpened in the spring of 2019, when Fedde played catch with Scherzer at the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. Scherzer taught Fedde his grip and overall approach. The main takeaway for Fedde was cocking his wrist at a near-90 degree angle, making it feel as if he is pushing the pitch while releasing it.

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

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