The man who saw the origin of baseball’s 2 most stupefying cutters

LOS ANGELES — Imagine you were there when Julius Erving made his first dunk and then for Michael Jordan’s, too.

More than that, you grasped quickly the implications of how defining and transformational it would be if they just kept on dunking, and you told them not to stop.

Mike Borzello, working in the bullpen for first the Yankees and then the Dodgers, was on the ground floor when first Mariano Rivera and then Kenley Jansen learned they had cutters. “Learned” being the key word. Neither initially knew he literally had greatness in his hands.

I asked six scouts/personnel people via text if these were the best cutters they had ever seen. Even those who would suggest a young Andrew Bailey or starters such as Roy Halladay (who learned the pitch at an All-Star Game from Rivera), Al Leiter, Cliff Lee or Jon Lester would say they paled to Rivera/Jansen.

“A lot of guys say they throw cutters, but they are more sliders,” said Borzello, who is across the field from Jansen in the NLCS as the Cubs catching coach. “With Mo and Kenley, it is a fastball – until it isn’t. There is no shape out of their hands. It is a fastball, and then 5 feet from home plate it cuts.”

Borzello, who was a minor league catcher, joined the Yankees in 1996 as a bullpen catcher when his godfather, Joe Torre, was named manager. The following year, in their daily game of catch, Ramiro Mendoza complained to Rivera his throws were sharply darting as never before. That June night, while warming Rivera up in the old Tiger Stadium bullpen, Borzello noticed it, too.

Initially, Rivera worked to straighten out the pitch, to get back to the riding fastball that had brought him initial relief success. Eventually, because he could not explain the origin of the pitch that will ultimately send him to Cooperstown, Rivera would call it his “gift from God.” Perhaps only Jorge Posada caught that gift more frequently than Borzello, who warmed Rivera up for 12 seasons.

He figured he would never see anything like it again. But Borzello followed Torre to the Dodgers and was told by Los Angeles executives of a prospect with “an invisible fastball.” Borzello, since he worked with catchers, had seen film of Jansen, who originally was a strong-armed, poor-hitting catcher who reluctantly switched to relief. He flew through the system in 2010 and ended up with the Dodgers in July.

Derek Jeter, Mike Borzello and Chuck Knoblauch in 1999Photo: Nury Hernandez

“A lot of guys, you hear invisible fastball, and they get to the big leagues and it is quite visible,” Borzello said.

Not this one. He warmed Jansen up and Borzello couldn’t believe it: “I had the same reaction as when Mariano’s cutter showed up. I did not expect it. I told him afterward, ‘Kenley, your ball cuts at the end like this (holding hands about 8 inches apart). It is not an invisible fastball. It is a cutter.”

Jansen spotted Borzello during Monday’s NLCS workout day, hugged him and chatted for a few minutes. A little while later in the Dodgers dugout, Jansen recalled that first bullpen session, saying: “Borzy said, ‘You know that is like Mariano’s.’ At first, I didn’t believe it, but that is really how I figured out the ball was cutting so much.”

Borzello would not say which reliever had the better cutter, only that Rivera’s was more precise and boggled hitters because it jumped from such an easy delivery, while Jansen’s is more explosive. Jansen credited Borzello and former Dodgers bullpen coach Ken Howell for helping him better locate the pitch by devising what they called the “Guillermo Mota drill,” because they had done it for the former reliever, of pinpointing 10 pitches to each quadrant of the strike zone, beginning with and emphasizing down and away to a righty.

Jansen emerged as the regular closer in 2012. Among relievers who have appeared in at least 400 games, Jansen is sixth all time in save percentage at 88.3 (Rivera is fourth at 89.1) and second in strikeouts per nine innings at 13.9 (Craig Kimbrel’s 14.5 is first).

Jansen, with free agency upon him, has gained plaudits this postseason for also emulating Rivera in another way. Rivera owns the postseason relief records of pitching more than an inning 58 times (in 96 total appearances) and at least two innings 33 times. Jansen has gone more than an inning in three of his five postseason games this year, including coming in during the seventh inning of a Division Series clincher against Washington and earning a two-inning save in NLCS Game 2.

“They are very similar,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who had one of the most famous steals in major league history against Rivera in the 2004 ALCS. “Joe [Torre] rode Mo in the postseason. Now, we are doing the same with Kenley.”

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