Johnny Cueto For Cy Young

Yesterday, we rolled out Fielding Dependent Pitching in an effort to provide a more thorough evaluation of pitching and run prevention. Today, I want to talk about how FDP can be used to examine the Cy Young races, and specifically, why it illustrates that Johnny Cueto should be the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award.

Let’s just start by looking at the value stats of the top five candidates, side by side.

Name IP WAR RA9-Wins BIP-Wins LOB-Wins FDP-Wins
Clayton Kershaw 186.2 4.7 5.1 1.7 (1.3) 0.4
Johnny Cueto 181.2 4.6 6.4 0.2 1.6 1.8
R.A. Dickey 182.1 4.1 5.1 0.9 0.1 1.0
Matt Cain 182.0 3.5 5.1 1.5 0.1 1.6
Aroldis Chapman 64.0 3.5 3.5 0.4 (0.3) 0.1

You could make a case for some other guys on the periphery, including somewhat shocking entries from guys Kyle Lohse and Wade Miley, but in terms of people I think actually have a chance to win, it’s probably one of these five. Kershaw and Cueto grade out best in terms of WAR, but their lead over Dickey and Cain is slight, and of course both of them are known for being pitchers who outperform their FIP anyway. Chapman’s in the mix because he’s having one of the great relief seasons of all time, but I’m not going to spend too much time talking about him in this post because he doesn’t really have much of a case, given what his own teammate is doing in the rotation. So, really, let’s focus on the four starters.

WAR suggests its a pretty close race, with Kershaw and Cueto out in front. However, we’ve never intended for WAR to be a discussion-ender, with the leaderboards of that one stat being the standard for handing out awards, and there is no question that you should dive deeper into the issue that simply saying “Kershaw has the highest WAR, therefore he’s been the best.” And now, with FDP, we can more easily look at the differences in run prevention that aren’t so clearly the result of the pitcher, and decide how much credit we want to give them for those runs saved.

So, if you re-sort the table above by FDP, you’ll note that Cueto has produced the most extra wins above and beyond his FIP, coming in at +1.6 LOB-wins and +0.2 BIP-wins. Cain and his normal low-BABIP ways add +1.5 BIP-wins and +0.1 Lob-wins, while Dickey’s knuckler gets him +0.9 BIP-wins and +0.1 LOB-wins. With both Cain and Dickey, we have legitimate reasons to believe that their below average BABIPs are a direct result of a skill they possess, and so they likely should be given a large majority of the credit for their FDPs, which would push both of their adjusted WARs up around +5.0 wins.

With Kershaw, the story is more interesting, and forces us to look deeper into the causes of runner stranding. While Kershaw is also likely a lower BABIP guy — high strikeout flyball lefties do well in hit prevention historically — his BIP-wins and LOB-wins nearly offset, and Kershaw’s total FDP is just +0.4. In other words, it’s hard to make a case that Kershaw has performed significantly better than his FIP, even though he has one of the lowest BABIPs in the league.

Cueto, on the other hand, is essentially Kershaw’s equal in wins based on FIP, but has racked up +1.8 FDP-wins, and has done it in the exact opposite way of everyone else we’ve discussed. His +1.6 LOB-wins lead the National League, and suggests that Cueto may deserve more credit than his WAR suggests. But, before we just hand him that extra credit, we’ll want to know how he’s keeping opposing baserunners from scoring. In looking through his splits, the answer doesn’t immediately jump out at you.

Bases Empty: .235/.270/.317, .259 wOBA
Men On Base: .245/.338/.369, .294 wOBA
RISP: .246/.357/.371, .311 wOBA

Unlike with Jordan Zimmerman (#2 in the NL in LOB-wins), Cueto’s performance against hitters has not taken a significant uptick once he allows a baserunner. In fact, he gets quite a bit worse, as his FIP rises from 2.44 with the bases empty up to 4.63 with men in scoring position. And, his BABIPs are essentially even in all three situations, so we can’t explain his stranded runners through the sequencing of hit prevention.

However, there’s one thing that these splits don’t measure, and it happens to be the thing that Johnny Cueto is better at than anyone else in baseball – picking runners off.

Cueto’s pick-off move isn’t the stuff of legends yet, but it probably should be. The list of the top ten pickoffs by a pitcher this year includes nine left-handed pitchers and Johnny Cueto, and despite being right-handed, Cueto’s seven pickoffs are actually only one off the Major League lead (held by Kershaw and Ricky Romero). Cueto’s pick-off move is so good, he actually nailed two Giants in the same inning back in June, and because it’s fun, let’s take a look at those.

Okay, Melky Cabrera was leaning, and any pitcher can catch a guy leaning once in a while, right? Well, look what he does to Buster Posey not five minutes later.

Buster Posey has stolen one base this year. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying for one there – Cueto just spun around so quickly he caught Posey off guard and didn’t give him a chance to get back to the bag. And so, despite the fact that the three batters he faced in that inning went single-walk-deep flyball to center field, it was actually a 1-2-3 inning for Cueto, and no one even got into scoring position.

Cueto’s been doing this kind of thing all year long, and it’s gotten to the point where there’s no real point even trying to get much of a lead off first base, much less think about taking second. Opposing baserunners have managed one steal off Cueto all season, matching the same number of stolen bases that he allowed in 2011. In fact, for his career, opposing base stealers are just 14 for 41 against Cueto, an astounding 34% success rate. 28 major league pitchers have allowed more stolen bases this year than Cueto has in his entire career.

How big of a deal can holding runners on actually be? Well, consider a guy like Tim Lincecum, a right-hander with a lousy pickoff move who doesn’t hold runners all that well. Would-be basestealers are a perfect 18-for-18 off of him this year, and surprise surprise, he’s posted -1.2 LOB-wins this year. Not all of that can be attributed to his inability to hold runners, but even if we just take the linear weight value of those steals, that’s 17 extra bases advanced at 0.25 runs apiece, and eight fewer outs made on the bases against him at 0.50 runs apiece, so the gap between Cueto and Lincecum’s value simply on SB/CS is over eight runs, or nearly an entire win. And that presumes that the only value to be had from holding runners is through controlling steals or picking runners off, but it’s certainly possible that batters get better jumps off Lincecum than they do off Cueto, which could influence the frequency of double plays turned or their ability to go first to third on a base hit.

While Cueto’s never stranded runners at this level before, and it’s unlikely that his LOB-wins are entirely the result of his fearsome pickoff move, the reality is that he has demonstrated a real skill at runner stranding, and he’s been above average in LOB-wins every year of his career. Like we acknowledge that Dickey and Cain are likely influencing a decent amount of their hit prevention, we should also acknowledge that Cueto is influencing a large part of his runner stranding, and given that he also leads both of them in FIP, we should give Cueto enough credit for his FDP that he returns to the top of the heap in the Cy Young race once again.

While things can certainly change over the final month of the season, Cueto has established himself as the frontrunner, and should be the guy to beat at this point. His skills as a pitcher — and perhaps the best right-handed pickoff move we’ve seen in a very long time — have elevated him into the top tier of the National League hurlers, and unless Dickey or Cain close with a great final month, the Cy Young Award should end up in Cincinnati. It just belongs to their ace starter, not their ace reliever.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

66 Responses to “Johnny Cueto For Cy Young”

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  1. Nick says:

    Who has the best LH pickoff move?

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  2. lester bangs says:

    WAR has no idea what to do with Posey, or catching defense, obviously.

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  3. White Blood Cells says:

    This is a great article. I’m really digging FDP.

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  4. Brian says:

    Cueto is an expert at pulling off the “balk move” without the umps calling it. Left foot moves first, w/ heel coming up. He executes it so fluidly/rapidly that he gets away with it.

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  5. RMR says:

    I wonder if using FIP and then having LOB as part of the FDP essentially double counts. That is to say, I imagine that HR rates and LOB% are highly correlated. Allow lots of homers and your FIP will go up and your LOB% will go down and vice versa.

    Johnny Cueto gets both groundballs and controls the running game. But he’s also excellent at suppressing homers — and he’s getting double credit for that.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      No, he’s not. The only way HRs can affect LOB-wins is if they’re not evenly distributed – say, for instance, if a pitcher gives up a great percentage of their home runs without men on base. In that instance, a pitcher’s FIP would overstate the penalty for their HRs by using the 1.4 run linear weight value, and LOB-wins would make up the difference, so that everything added up to his RA9.

      Cueto’s given up four solo home runs and five home runs with men on base, so that’s not really the issue here.

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  6. Jonathan says:

    I think my favorite part of the pickoffs is that he’s got a RH 1B too. It takes a certain level of badass to pick righty off with a right handed 1B. Brings back memories of Game 2 of the ’07 WS with Papelbon (A guy with no pickoff whatsoever) gunning it to Youkilis to get Holliday.

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  7. Oliver says:

    This year’s Cy Young requires no analysis. R.A. Dickey, just for being R.A. Dickey.

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  8. Ben says:

    Clayton Kershaw has picked off the most guys and his LOB wins are (1.3)?

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    • Frank says:

      Yeah, I don’t get this part

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      • Matthias says:

        Kershaw’s splits suggest he gets even better with runners on base and in scoring position. Being a pickoff artist as well, there’s obviously something else hurting his LOB runs. I just can’t figure out what…

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      • Bip says:

        Sac flies and RBI ground outs? It seems like those things don’t happen enough for it to have a significant effect on LOB% but it’s worth considering.

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      • Frank says:

        Hmmm, pretty weird that Kershaw would get penalized because of Juan Rivera, Dee Gordon, and other subpar defenders on the Dodgers

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  9. Snowblind says:

    Looking forward to the AL equivalent of this article, as I wonder what it does to separate the Felix / Verlander / Price / Weaver pack.

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  10. Rex Manning Day says:

    Leaving Strasburg out of the analysis seems like a missed opportunity. I assume he was left out because he’s getting shut down, which will ultimately hold him back on the value stats compared to others. But his current stats put him in contention, and I think he would have made for an interesting comparison here because of his FDP numbers.

    Strasburg’s FDP stats are actually in the negative. His BIP might be tossed up to luck, but his LOB is perhaps tied to his inexperience. The Nats as a team haven’t been good at dealing with runners this year, and Strasburg in particular might be having trouble. So whereas FDP reveals additional value in Cueto’s performance, it actually reveals a flaw in Strasburg’s.

    So while I agree that Strasburg probably won’t be in the actual CY race because he’ll miss the last month, I think he would have made for an interesting comparison in an analysis like this.

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  11. Dan says:

    Ended Jason LaRue’s career in a fit of manic rage, and no one ever talks about it for some reason. He got a 7-game suspension, and all anyone wants to talk about is how the penalties aren’t strict enough for PED users.

    He ends a guy’s career, and Brett Myers physically assaults his wife in public, and yet the fans reserve their boos for Ryan Braun. Awesome.

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    • Desertfox says:

      Are we still on about that? If you must know, Cueto gets booed by the “best fans in baseball” whenever he is in St. Louis.

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    • Jason LaRue says:

      Cueto’s “kick” was just 1 in 18 concussions LaRue suffered. To blame him for him stopping playing is foolish and naive.

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    • tyke says:

      and a brawl started by a st. louis catcher…

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    • Monroe says:

      Manic rage? Really? Try panic. Cueto was trapped against the screen by a fight he had nothing to do with. He panicked. Was it the right thing to do? No. Was it a mistake? Absolutely. But to characterize this unfortunate episode as “manic rage” speaks to an inability see beyond the prism of your Cardinals fandom.

      Meanwhile, Jason LaRue was 36 years old. He sported a line of .196/.274/.321 at the time of that fight. His 12 year MLB career was already done. May it rest in peace.

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  12. Bip says:

    Wait, so a proposed explanation for Cueto’s extra LOB wins are that he has a great pickoff move which has led him to have almost as many pickoffs as a guy whose negative LOB value is left totally unexplained? If Kershaw’s negative LOB value is due to bad luck, which I think it is, being as this year he has easily the lowest LOB% of his career, then that accounts for the gap between Cueto and Kershaw.

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    • Gavin says:

      Does it matter who started it? The bottom line is you don’t kick a person in the had with baseball cleats. That’s basic morality.

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      • GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat says:

        You do realize that Cueto was the smallest guy on the field and had a bunch of angry mouth breathers coming after him, right?

        He had every right to defend himself. No offense to LaRue, but he was one of the aggressors.

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      • Mark McGwire's Steroid-driven 70 homers says:

        Keep dredging the brawl up and trying to play the victim Cards fans. It just makes you look weak and even more whiny than usual.

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      • gweedoh565 says:

        To add to GlennBraggs: Cueto was backed against the brick backstop with a crowd surging on him; at that point survival instincts kick (ha) in, and that makes people do crazy things.

        To imply that Cueto was purposefully trying to break LaRue’s skull with his flailing legs is just ludicrous.

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  13. Josh says:

    Kris Medlen’s has quite a pick off too.

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  14. ODawg says:

    I’m having trouble accepting that a pitcher should get more credit for quality of LOB- over quality of BIP-, as Dave suggested in a previous article and implies in this one. I’m far from the foremost expert as I skipped “constructing pitcher evaluation metrics 101″ and know little of linear weights. In my amateur opinion, it seems that we are looking at something like: “quality of inducing contact that produces outs, mitigated by non-pitcher-controlled results of weakly hit balls finding holes and subpar defensive play” (BIP-), as opposed to “quality of ‘buckling down’ on hitters, mitigated by many, many non-pitcher-controlled factors involved with runners not scoring once they are in base.” (LOB-)

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  15. Izzy Hechkoff says:

    Are Cain’s numbers park adjusted? 5.1 RA/9 Wins seems to be too high.

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  16. Patrick says:

    Dave I appreciate the analysis, but you do realize that you just showed Johnny Cueto balking that baserunner into making a mistake? It is illegal for the front knee to move first. This move is taught to every right handed pitcher in college and/or high school. The skill comes in deceiving the umpire into thinking its a legal move while deceiving the baserunner into seeing the front knee move first.

    Either way it is a balk, and thus I do not believe should be credited as a good pickoff move. Is a player more skilled because he cheats more effectively?

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    • deflated says:

      That is a great pickoff move. How is this different from selling the umpire on a pitch 2 inches off the plate as a strike? Playing to the limits of the rules as defined by the umpire is a fundamental of baseball.

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  17. eric says:

    Cueto wears his hat sideways. That should disqualify him, it is obnoxious.

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  18. Dave G. says:

    Cueto’s had a pretty cake schedule, he gets to face the Cubs and Astros several times, plus lower tier AL teams. And he faced Pitt early in the season when they couldn’t hit anything. Dickey’s struck out more and works in front of the more defensively challenged team. He’s got more Ks, more complete games, he’s been more dominant. Cueto’s had the greater amount of babip luck, and wouldn’t be surprised to see him with a couple bad starts down the stretch. FIP is unfair to knuckleballers, I vote Dickey.

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    • bstar says:

      Well, B-Ref’s rWAR is saying the same thing. Cueto’s ERA+ is 170, Dickey is at 137. Cueto has 6.0 rWAR and Dickey 4.0.

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    • big red machine says:

      Cueto plays in Great American as his home park and has a better ERA on top of it… case closed, IMO
      (and BTW, Dickey has had more BABIP luck this year)

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  19. Dr. Chaleeko says:

    Dave mentioned in a previous article that because we can’t accurately partition credit between defense and pitching, FG chose not to include BIP-wins and LOB-wins in WAR. But since we can accurately give credit to pitchers for pickoffs can’t we roll that info into WAR? That might have the effect of reducing the number of unaccounted-for runs between RA9-wins and WAR.

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    • Dr. Chaleeko says:

      To clarify, by “that” info I meant pick offs. Basically pull it out of LOB-Wins and put it into WAR in some way.

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  20. Dave G. says:

    Also, that pick off is clearly a balk. His front knee bends before he lifts back foot off the rubber. Can’t do that. It’s deceptive, because it’s illegal. Dickey also has an amazing pick off move that’s a borderline balk.

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  21. Table says:

    “and unless Dickey or Cain close with a great final month, the Cy Young Award should end up in Cincinnati.”

    Any reason why Kershaw is left off here?

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    • Bip says:

      Realistically he’s not going to win the Cy Young this year. The award goes to the player with the best narrative, and Cain, Cueto and Dickey are the ones who people have been talking about all year. All people can say regarding Kershaw this year is that he’s not the same guy he was last year. Also, wins are the still the biggest statistical contributor to that narrative, so unless Kershaw wins enough games to catch up to them, he won’t be in the discussion.

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  22. bstar says:

    “Chapman’s in the mix because he’s having one of the great relief seasons of all time.”

    Where is Craig Kimbrel in your evaluation? The ONLY thing Chapman has done better than Kimbrel this year is pitch more innings. Chapman has gotten tons of press this year for his strikeouts, but Kimbrel has surpassed Aroldis in both K/9(16.1 vs. 15.9) and K%(49.4 vs. 46.5). Kimbrel is precipitously close to striking out every other batter he’s faced this year. Needless to say, both these marks are currently MLB all-time records.

    Craig Kimbrel is also currently holding MLB single-season records for BA against(.117), SLG against(.160), OPS against(.339), and OPS+ against(-5).

    All these marks surpass Chapman’s numbers. Kimbrel also has a better FIP(0.81 vs. 1.12) and ERA+(360 vs. 335). But hey, since Cincinnati has had more save opportunities this year than Atlanta, let’s continue with the fallacy that Aroldis Chapman has been better than Craig Kimbrel in 2012.

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    • gweedoh565 says:

      I was going to argue that it is certainly up for debate that Chapman is better than Kimbrel rather than a “fallacy”, but then I looked at the numbers, and the case for Chapman over Kimbrel is pretty strong.

      Chapman leads Kimbrel in WPA (3.17 to 2.77), and by a wide margin in fWAR (3.5 to 2.6). Plus, the K/9 and K% are nearly identical (Kimbrel just surpassed Chapman this past week in the former- expect them to bounce back and forth for the lead over the last month of the season).

      Yes, it’s not Kimbrel’s fault he hasn’t pitched as many innings, but that’s a nonsensical argument for superiority when Chapman has pitched 33% more innings at a nearly identical effectiveness. By this logic, a pitcher who throws a single inning, strikes out the side, and then sits out the rest of the year should win the CYA.

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    • gweedoh565 says:

      I should add: I do agree that Kimbrel should definitely have at least been mentioned in the article.

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  23. Alex says:

    It looks like Cueto balks when he picked off Melky.

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  24. beeviss says:

    Pretty observant to call balk on the first gif. Now, watch it in full speed and tell me you see the same thing.

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