PHILADELPHIA - Everyone knows how good right-hander Wander Suero’s cutter can be. It is his signature pitch. But Suero’s confidence in his changeup, which can also be a plus pitch, could be the key to taking his game to the next level.
Helping the 27-year-old understand the importance of this pitch and how to use his cutter in different ways is 42-year-old Fernando Rodney. The 17-year veteran of 11 teams has guided Suero through the finer points of pitch usage and location, getting him to believe in all his offerings and when to use them.
“He’s helped me a lot,” Suero said via team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “He’s very important. A guy like him that’s been around the league for a long time, a veteran guy, he knows how to study hitters. He sits down and talks to me a lot before and during the game. He tries to teach me a lot, especially right now, trying to learn from him, in terms of the changeup. I look at his grip and then kind of work with mine. He’s helped me with that.”
Suero had been knocked around a bit in April and May, allowing 15 runs and three homers with eight walks. Teams were keying in on his cutter location and teeing off on his curveball.
Rodney arrived to the Nationals in late June. Since his arrival, the veteran closer has taken Suero under his wing. Suero has allowed only two runs over 6 2/3 innings in his last eight appearances, including no hits and no runs his last three outings.
“We’ve been talking last two weeks I was here,” Rodney said. “He is a young guy. He got good stuff. The only thing to be (at the top) level in this game is preparing yourself every day. You have to know a lot of things that happen in this game. We’ve been talking. He feels better himself.”
The first thing Rodney focused in on for Suero is locating his signature pitch: the cutter. The emphasis was to make sure he did not place the pitch in the same spot every time.
“Mostly we talk about (his) cutter,” Rodney said. “When we face this division they know you’re going to use that pitch. Sometimes (throw it) up, or down, move around, but not in the same spot, because they’re going to make it work and try to go the other way. So, it makes you work more than you’re supposed to.”
Suero knows how important his cutter is to his success. He knows he has to make sure it doesn’t end up right where the hitter can get a hold of it.
“It’s a pitch that I feel like I have pretty good control over,” Suero said. “I try to avoid using it on the inside half of the plate because it tends to drift over the plate. So I do elevate it or throw it down in the zone, and especially middle away, so that it looks like it’s in the zone and goes off the plate in that direction.”
In his hold here Friday night, a 4-0 win over the Phillies, Suero pitched a scoreless seventh, striking out two. He threw seven cutters to Brad Miller, moving the ball around, for the strikeout. Facing Scott Kingery, it was five cutters and a changeup. Another strikeout. Against Jean Segura, he began with a first pitch curveball for a strike. The cutter than forced Segura into a fly out to center field to end the inning.
Suero had learned from a game July 5 against the Kansas City Royals. Rodney engrained in Suero that he must move the cutter around the zone. He showed Suero how the Royals were keying on the cutter.
“The other night against Kansas City, you see that late swing (by) that guy hitting?” he asked Suero. “He said ‘yeah.’ That’s why he tried to go the other way. You leave it there and they go the other way. That kind of thing - keep fresh in your mind when you go to pitch. You have to know when the hitter is looking for something. Nobody is going to be perfect every night, sometimes it’s going to be tough.”
Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart said Suero’s cutter is special. But he cannot just throw it up there and assume the strikeout.
“He will throw it front door, back door to lefties and inside to righties,” Menhart said. “It’s a tough pitch for hitters to try and barrel up. It looks so fat for so long and then it just takes that left turn so late. That’s what made, I don’t want to compare him to Mariano Rivera, but that’s what made Mariano Rivera so effective for so many years. It’s a difficult pitch to barrel up.”
That brings us to Suero’s changeup. Menhart said it can be a plus pitch too for the right-hander.
“He’s always had a good changeup, he just wasn’t using it enough, period,” Menhart said. “He has an elite cutter, but he also has an elite changeup. I don’t want to say he didn’t trust it, he just didn’t throw it. Now he’s throwing it and gaining even more trust than he already had in it to begin with. The usage of it has increased exponentially and it’s been quite effective.”
Menhart said the cutter and changeup thrown in the same at-bat creates the “spread eagle effect”. The two pitches diverge when coming out of Suero’s hands. This plays tricks on the hitter’s eye.
“My changeup is a very important pitch and I know that,” Suero said. “Especially the fact that it moves to the opposite direction as my cutter. So, it helps actually improve my cutter if I’m able to throw it and get the hitters to see it. Obviously, it has a small reduction in speed. But more importantly, it moves in a different direction and it makes my cutter more effective.”
Saturday night Suero pitched again, this time in an attempt to close out the eighth inning against the dangerous Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto.
In a nine-pitch battle with Hoskins, Suero used the changeup three times. Pitches seven and eight were back-to-back changeups. Hoskins fouled both pitches off. Pitch nine, Suero went back to the cutter at 94.5 mph. Hoskins flew out to Adam Eaton for the second out.
He started off Realmuto with a curveball. Even though it wasn’t a first pitch strike, it got the hitter to think about that pitch. The next pitch, his patented cutter, forced a groundout to Anthony Rendon. Suero got out of the inning. And thanks to the dramatic Juan Soto two-run shot in the ninth, Suero was credited with his second win of the season.
“It’s a really good pitch,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said of Suero’s changeup. “If he could throw it in certain situations, and feel comfortable throwing it, it’s going to help him be more effective. As we all know he’s got a good cutter. And his curveball too, his curveball is really good. He’s just now learning how and when to throw it. If he can hone in on those two (pitches) and have three good pitches, he’s going to be really good.”
The curveball has been a hittable pitch against Suero. So Martinez told Suero to change his strategy on its use.
“(W)e talked to Wander, when you want (to) throw a curveball just throw it early in the count,” Martinez said of the curveball usage Friday night. “Don’t throw it late. He threw it over for a strike, strike one. Then all of a sudden next thing he threw two cutters and got the guy out. I started watching. He’s finally starting to get the idea of what he’s trying to do, what he wants to do.”
Suero said his discussions with Menhart have emphasized how they want him to trust his changeup more. Try and employ it now at a higher frequency than he did at the beginning of the season.
“The pitching coach has helped me a lot in gaining confidence in my changeup,” Suero said. “He’s definitely told me it’s a very important pitch that I have to throw. The more I throw it the better I can control it and learn how to throw it and in what situations.”
Rodney agreed with Menhart, imploring Suero to use his off speed pitch to augment the potent cutter.
“As for the changeup, don’t be afraid to throw it,” Rodney said. “Just try to locate the pitch. Trust your pitch. Any situation you see your cutter working, (also) throw your changeup, or slider, your breaking ball that you have.”
With Rodney’s advice, Suero feels confident in sprinkling in his changeup with the cutter, and showing the curveball early on. Adding all these pitches together could help Suero turn the corner toward consistent success.