Johnny Cueto, Why Don’t I Trust You?

 

Sep 28, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second inning at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

 

I play a ton of fantasy baseball, and I talk more fantasy baseball than I play. That’s a lot of fantasy baseball talk. One of the topics these talks always come back to is Johnny Cueto. I simply do not trust him and have refused to ever draft him. This has cost me over the years as he has had some great years, and I have lost bets on his numbers, specifically, to the same friend at least three times. Is it time to stop being stubborn and give Cueto a chance in 2015?

Johnny Cueto may be coming off the best year of his career in 2014 and likely will, and should, get some Cy Young attention. In 2014, Cueto pitched to a 2.25 ERA, won twenty games, and struck out almost a batter per inning. If it was not for Clayton Kershaw, he would be a Cy Young favorite with those numbers.

My biggest hang-up with Cueto over the years has been his low strikeout rate compared to “ace” pitchers and his constantly higher-then-ERA FIP. This year his strikeout rate rose to that elite “ace” level. The strikeout jump is intriguing, as it could easily push him into that upper echelon of starters going into 2015. It is hard to see what exactly is responsible for the strikeout increase however. Cueto was injured and on and off the disabled list most of 2013, pitching only 60.2 innings, so it’s probably best to compare any changes to his 2012 season. In 2012 his strikeout rate was just over seven per nine innings. In 2012, per Fangraphs pitching charts, his swinging strike rate (the percent of times he had a batter swing and miss) was 8.6%, compared to 9.8% in 2014. Per Fangraphs, Johnny Cueto’s velocity is in the same ballpark as it has been for years, and the only real difference in pitch selection is heavier use of his cutter, which is not a strikeout pitch to begin with. In fact, most of the swinging strike increase seems to be coming from a more effective change up and fastball. This is good news for Cueto as those two pitches show solid improvement in missing more bats over the last few years. However, a 9.8% swinging strike rate is not exactly elite. It puts him in the same company as John Lackey and Hiroki Kuroda who are not exactly high strikeout guys. Can he really maintain a strikeout per inning with a decent, but not great swinging strike rate?

Johnny Cueto has been pitching better than his FIP for years.  After a while this stops becoming an outlier and starts becoming what we should expect. Cueto hit that point probably a few years ago. He is going to outpitch his FIP and have a very low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) numbers every year. Cueto’s .238 BABIP this year was the lowest in baseball. The Reds had one of the best defenses in baseball behind Cueto this year, which may be part of that low BABIP, but .238 is too low for me to ignore. Even Cueto has never had a BABIP that low in a year where he pitched more than 100 innings. Certainly some of the low BABIP is a result of Cueto’s pitching, and some is clearly a result of a strong Reds defense, but you can’t ignore that luck has to play a part in a .238 BABIP.

Some of the early talk I have seen has Cueto as a top ten starter in 2015 drafts. Based on his 2014 numbers he’s certainly worth it, but we’re not paying for 2014 numbers, we are paying for 2015 numbers. In order for Johnny Cueto to have top ten starter talent next year he would have to:

  • Stay healthy next year, which is something he has historically not been able to do.
  • Have another year with an insanely low BABIP.
  • Maintain a strikeout rate that I am not even was legit this year.
  • Rely on a another stellar defensive year from the Cincinnati Reds defense.

Call me stubborn, but I am not betting on all those happening in 2015. It is too much. I will once again not trust Johnny Cueto in 2015. Bring on the wagers.