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Rays' Maddon prefers less of Hellickson's cutter

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 05:24 AM

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ST. PETERSBURG -

The cut fastball has been an ally at times this season for Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, getting him out of some big jams.

But the pitch has also been a foe. Two of the last three home runs Hellickson has allowed have been on cutters that didn't quit cut.

Hellickson and his new pitch is one of the few topics that can change the sunny disposition of Rays manager Joe Maddon to, well not dark, but to at least somewhat cloudy.

Hellickson said he needs another pitch against left-handed hitters.

"I had a little trouble with lefties last year, so having a different look, a different pitch to show those guys doesn't hurt," Hellickson said.

Maddon said the different look is hurting Hellickson's effectiveness this season.

"You only pick up a pitch like that if the other parts of the package aren't working or if you need something else, otherwise I prefer you pitch with what you have. Normally it's later in your career," Maddon said.

Hellickson is aware of Maddon's feeling about his new pitch, and said he agrees with his manager.

"I think I definitely overused it a few times this year, but at the same time it's gotten me out of some situations, some big situations, fastball counts," Hellickson said. "It's hurt me more times than not these last few games."

This isn't to say there is an Earl Weaver vs. Jim Palmer-type feud within the Rays clubhouse. For the most part, Maddon is pleased with Hellickson's work this season.

Hellickson is 3-0 with a 2.75 ERA in six starts. He can become the first starting pitcher to begin a season 4-0 after winning the rookie of the year award the previous season, and that list includes 23 starting pitchers.

And, Maddon agrees with Hellickson that he could do a better job against left-handed hitters, who batted .230 against Hellickson in 2011, while right-handers hit .188.

To address that issue, Hellickson worked the cutter into his repertoire that already included a fastball, changeup and curveball.

The cutter is one of the more popular pitches picked by pitchers looking to add something new to their game. It falls somewhere between a fastball and a slider. It looks like a fastball when coming out of the pitcher's hand but cuts, in the case of a right-handed pitcher such as Hellickson, to the left side of the plate. A cutter from a left-hander cuts to the right side of the plate.

"They see fastball the whole way," Hellickson said. "They're in swing mood when they see a fastball over the plate. A little cut jams them."

One that catches too much of the plate is nothing more than a mediocre fastball, and generally gets hit hard.

James Shields, who starts for the Rays tonight when they begin a three-game series against the Yankees in New York, uses a cutter to keep hitters from sitting on his changeup.

"You hear all the hitters say, 'Oh man, he threw me a cutter. He snuck a cutter on me.' And you start wondering, is that a good pitch to throw?" Shields said. "You talk to the hitters on the team and they tell you it's a tough pitch to hit."

Given the success Shields has had with the pitch, you can see why Hellickson picked the cutter. But Hellickson has not quite mastered the pitch, and Maddon said it has taken away from his other pitches.

"It takes away the number of times you throw your better pitches because you're trying to fit something else into it, so your effectiveness can diminish with less usage of your best pitch," Maddon said. "

According to fangraphs.com, Hellickson is throwing 6.8 percent fewer curveballs and 3.6 percent fewer changeups than he did last season to accommodate the cutter, which he has thrown 11.7 percent of the time during his six starts.

"More than anything, hitters will tell you when you need to reinvent yourself, I really believe that," Maddon said. "With a lot of our young guys I'd rather stick with tried and true and not worry about reinvention."


rmooney@tampatrib.com

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