Remember when Johnny Cueto was viewed as a risk? I mean, he’s a pitcher, of course he’s a risk — all pitchers are risks. But even relative to other pitchers, Cueto was regarded this offseason as a rather large uncertainty. Between his underwhelming second half and ugly postseason with Kansas City, a right elbow that barked multiple times throughout the year, and his heavy workload in 2014 and 2015, expectations were tempered entering the 2016 season, and it seemed like folks were prepared for the possibility of a Cueto decline, or even collapse.
That preparation was for naught. Out of the gate, the Giants are getting peak Cueto. My preferred method of looking at pitcher WAR is using a 50/50 split of FIP-based WAR and RA9-WAR. It’s not perfect, but neither is looking at just one, and we know the ideal mix is somewhere in between. For now, I’m fine with simply splitting the difference. Do that, and this is your current 2016 top five:
- Clayton Kershaw, 5.6 WAR
- Johnny Cueto, 4.0
- Noah Syndergaard, 3.7
- Jake Arrieta, 3.5
- Chris Sale, 3.4
Nobody’s Kershaw. But this year, Cueto’s arguably been the next-best thing. Or at the very least, the next-most valuable. Cueto threw another complete game last night, already his fourth of the season, and this one came against the Rockies. When Cueto’s taken the mound this year, the Giants are 16-2. I don’t think too many folks are still viewing Cueto as an uncertainty.
Environmentally, there couldn’t be much more going in Cueto’s favor, and that’s got to be acknowledged. He spent the first seven years of his career pitching in Cincinnati, a bandbox of a ballpark that works against pitching, and then he moved to the American League, where pitchers are replaced in the batting order by dudes whose only job is to hit. Now, he’s back to facing pitchers, and not only that, he’s facing pitchers in baseball’s most pitcher-friendly stadium. Adding to that, Cueto’s a guy who loves to work around the edges of the zone, and while recently he’s commonly pitched to the likes of Brayan Pena and Salvador Perez, the latter of whom routinely grades among baseball’s worst pitch framers, Cueto this year is enjoying the pleasure of pitching to Buster Posey, who’s currently grading as baseball’s best. He’s also enjoying the pleasure of pitching in front of an elite defense, though he’s long enjoyed that pleasure.
He’s gone from small parks and designated hitters and poor catchers to a favorable home stadium, more easy lineups, baseball’s best catcher, and an excellent defense. Of course, we’ve got adjusted stats to account for most of that, and Cueto’s still in the top-10 in those. If it were that easy to succeed in San Francisco, everybody would do it, and yet no one’s doing it like Cueto.
For one, it sure seems like he’s taking advantage of his new environment. By the metrics, this year’s Giants have had, by far, baseball’s best infield defense. Baseball Info Solutions credits San Francisco’s defense with 39 runs saved on the season; only one other team cracks 20. And along with that, Cueto’s increased his ground-ball rate by more than nine points — the second-largest increase of any qualified pitcher from last season. Cueto’s been a ground-baller in the past, but this is the second-highest rate of his career, and its coinciding with a change in location.
Last season, only Jordan Zimmermann threw a higher rate of pitches in the upper-half of the zone and beyond than Cueto. With all his offspeed pitches and lack of top-end velocity, you might not think of him this way, but Cueto’s recently been one of baseball’s most extreme high-ball pitchers. Not anymore. Going from last year to this year, Cueto’s had one of the five largest shifts toward the bottom of the zone:
Don’t get it twisted — Cueto still likes his high pitch. But there’s been an effort to more often work in the lower half of the zone in San Francisco. The lower half of the zone is where Posey works his receiving magic, and the lower half of the zone is where ground balls are generated, the ones that Brandon Crawford and the rest of the Giants defense routinely turn into outs.
And that relationship between Cueto and the infield defense? It manifests itself not only in quantity, but in quality as well. Among the 133 pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches thrown this season, Cueto’s average exit velocity of 86.8 miles per hour ranks fourth. His grounders have gone just 83.2 mph, also fourth. His two-seam fastball, with which he pounds the inner-half of the plate against right-handed batters, has generated an average exit velocity of 82.2 mph, baseball’s best. It gets swings that look like this:
Oh, yeah. Cueto can help himself out, too.
We’ve long thought of Cueto as something of a contact-manager, given his repeatedly low BABIPs and high strand rates, and now we’ve got the data to support that assumption.
There’s more going on here. Cueto’s going to his slider more often, and he’s truly solving right-handed batters for the first time in his career. He’s running a career-low walk rate and a career-high first-pitch strike rate, evidence that his command is sharper than it’s been in the past. And then he’s still doing all the things that have made him Cueto all along — the masterful mixing of all six pitches, the deception from his many deliveries.
It’s just all clicking right now. You can’t not give credit to Cueto’s surroundings, but you also can’t not give credit to Cueto for using his surroundings to his advantage. Cueto’s looked like an ace in the past, but that went away for a bit. Now, he looks like a better ace than ever before. The Giants are almost certainly going to make the postseason this year. This time, they won’t need Madison Bumgarner to throw 50 innings.