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Johnny Cueto’s Changeup Leads to Cy Young Caliber Season

The past 46 starts of Johnny Cueto‘s career have been absolutely incredible. Between last year and this year, the Reds’ ace has posted a 2.41 ERA in 302.2 innings. Cueto was a big regression candidate after posting a 2.31 ERA, 3.45 FIP, and 3.93 SIERA last season, but he has followed that impressive season up with an even better year on the mound. While his ERA has jumped up a tick to 2.52, his FIP of 3.05 and SIERA of 3.70 are career lows, and despite pitching in an extremely hitter friendly ballpark, Cueto has allowed just 15 home runs over the past two years.

While he may have been a tad bit more lucky than good last year, he has improved his peripherals with the increased usage of his change up. The pitch was a solid secondary offering over the past few years, being thrown between 9-11% of the time, but he has upped the usage of his change up to 19.1% this season as he has reduced the reliance on his fastballs and slider.

Cueto also has not been afraid to attack right-handed hitters with the change up. Last season, he threw just 43 change ups to right-handed hitters. This year he has already thrown 120 change ups to righties, good for 12% of his pitches to right-handed batters. With the added frequency against right-handers, his whiff rate is up to 10.8% — the highest of any of his pitches — ┬ácompared to last year’s 2.3% whiff rate, which was the lowest of any of his offerings. And not coincidentally, where Cueto has derived most of his value this season has been against right-handed batters, who have just a .236 wOBA against him this season compared to lefties who have a .325 mark.

Even though lefties have hit him well this year, Cueto has still relied upon his change up to improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is now 3.44 against lefties compared to a career ratio of just 2.10. He has actually done better in terms of strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties this year than righties, but his BABIP has jumped to .360 and caused his results to decline. It is not entirely incorrect to say he has pitched better against lefties than righties this year but has simply received worse results. Change up usage jumping to 24.5% against lefties with a 11.6% whiff rate is a large reason for the improved strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his results against left-handed batters should improve if he continues to pitch as well as he has this season.

As you can see from the three above .gifs from his most recent outing, with the top .gif being of his fastball and the bottom .gifs being of his change up to a left-handed and right-handed hitter, his change up does have a vast amount of fade and solid arm action when compared to his fastball. Cueto’s change up is not one of the top pitches in the league, but in combination with a very nice fastball, it is an extremely useful pitch which he is continually getting more comfortable with.

While many called for a regression this year after last year’s performance in relation to his peripherals, Cueto has improved on the mound and has been able to maintain a similar level of success in terms of runs allowed. Without the increased usage of his change up against both right-handers and left-handers, those calling for a regression may have been right. Instead, Cueto is having a Cy Young caliber campaign and is the best pitcher on arguably the best team in baseball.

Thanks to Chad Moriyama for the .gifs.