CLEARWATER, Fla. — Spring training began last February and Tommy Hunter was without a team. The reliever, after battling injuries the previous season, was jobless.
Tampa Bay invited the right-hander to camp on a minor-league contract a week into spring training. No guarantee except for a uniform and a locker. Hunter pitched well, made the opening-day roster, and had the best season of his career. The Phillies signed him in December, giving him $18 million over two years, the offseason’s fifth-largest contract for a relief pitcher. Quite a bit changed for Hunter in the span of 10 months. And it was mostly due to one pitch: the cutter.
“Sometimes you just have to cut yourself slack and not be as hard. Maybe that’s the route I took,” Hunter said. “We as baseball players, we get put down quite a bit. You get sent down. You get released. You get hurt. So many aspects of this game go beyond actually playing the game. I put my time in, going through that stuff, and finally last year it paid off. It was an uphill battle the whole way. Trying to scratch and claw your way out of the dungeon.”
Hunter, 31, exited that dungeon after Tampa Bay’s coaching staff urged him to throw the cutter more. The pitch — which Hunter fired at an average of 94 mph last season — moves like a fastball before it cuts sharply to Hunter’s glove side as it crosses home plate. He had thrown it his whole career but never leaned on it the way he did last season. Hunter threw the cutter, according to Brooks Baseball, for 52.6 percent of his offerings as he used it almost in place of his traditional four-seam fastball. He used the pitch nearly 10 times more than he did two years earlier.
“The more you throw it, the more confident you get with it,” Hunter said. “Nobody knew I threw it because I hadn’t thrown it for a couple of years. I was out there just messing around and throwing it and I was getting one of those stern-eye looks like ‘Hey, why don’t you throw it again and throw it again.’ They just kept saying you might want to throw it a little more and giving me a little confidence.”
The pitch proved to be a dominant weapon. Opponents batted .154 against it and left-handers, who had long presented a problem for Hunter, were stymied. Lefties batted .171 overall against Hunter last season after hitting .313 in 2016. He held left-handers to a .261 slugging percentage, more than 100 points better than his previous single-season low. He finished the season with a 2.61 ERA in 58 2/3 innings. The cutter turned his career around. And the Phillies bet big on it.
“Lefthanded hitters do not like that pitch. It’s such a good pitch that they feel like they have to swing because it looks so inviting and then it’s gone,” pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. “That’s what’s so beautiful about this pitch. Hitters think they have it. They have to go for it as a strike and next think they know it’s on their knuckles. Then they’re going, ‘Why’d I swing at that?’ They see heater and think, ‘I got him.’ Next thing you know, it’s moving. Guys with really good cutters, that what they do. It just ensures that lefthanders aren’t cheating on him.”
The Phillies neglected signing a starting pitcher this offseason, instead opting to invest in their bullpen and ease the load on their young starters. They signed Pat Neshek, who signed his two-year, $16 million deal the same day as Hunter, and plan to enter the season with an eighth reliever, one more than usual. Hunter — and his cutter — will play a key role. It was hard to imagine that a year ago when he was waiting for a team to call.
“Anyone that wakes up and is human, you’re going to have some doubt. And if you don’t, you’re fake,” Hunter said. “You have it. It’s just how you deal with it. You have to keep going. You have children and other reasons to fight for it and to scratch and claw that much harder. [The contract] gives you a chance to take a deep breath and a reason to scratch and claw that much more because someone is giving you the chance that you’ve always wanted.”