Johnny Cueto’s Unhittable Fastball

Last night, Johnny Cueto dominated the Dodgers, punching out 12 batters in just six shutout innings. This wasn’t anything new, though; Cueto has been destroying opposing hitters all season long. Hitters are batting just .158/.218/.261 against him this year, good for a pitiful .217 wOBA, and he’s the easy early frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award.

Cueto has been very good before, but this year, he’s taking things to another level. His 28% strikeout rate is nine percentage points higher than his career average, and seven percentage points better than his career-best, posted last year. Last night was his fourth start of the season in which he punched out 10 or more batters; he’d only done that three times in his entire career prior to 2014. Cueto has always been a strike-thrower with a roughly average strikeout rate who succeeded by limiting hits on balls in play, never walking anyone, and completely shutting down the running game with the game’s best pickoff move.

Cueto is still doing all those things, only now, he’s also posting the fourth highest K% of any starting pitcher in baseball; the only guys ahead of him are Strasburg, Darvish, and Tanaka. Combine an elite strikeout rate with everything else Cueto does well, and you have something close to perfection.

But this isn’t the amazing part. The amazing part is how he’s doing it.

Cueto has thrown 435 pitches this year that the PITCHF/x algorithm has classified as four-seam fastballs. While that only accounts for 29% of his total pitches, it is the largest bucket of any pitch type, as he mixes his pitches about as well as any pitcher in the game. 67 pitchers, Cueto included, have thrown at least 400 four-seam fastballs (per the F/x algorithm) this year. The average wOBA allowed on those four-seam fastballs is .342. Johnny Cueto’s wOBA allowed on his four-seam fastball this year? .147.

Let me put that in some context for you. Here is a graph of the four-seam wOBA allowed for every pitcher with at least 400 four-seams thrown this year.

CuetowOBA

Cueto’s wOBA allowed on his four-seam fastball is nearly 100 points lower than the next lowest pitcher — Kansas City’s Danny Duffy — and 130 points lower than the third lowest pitcher. One standard deviation for this population is 48 points of wOBA; Cueto is 195 points of wOBA away from the average. That is four standard deviations from the mean. He’s two standard deviations away from the next guy.

Now, wOBA allowed for a specific pitch type isn’t actually the best to evaluate the quality of that pitch, because wOBA is only calculated for balls-in-play or walks, strikeouts, and hit batters. All of the pitches thrown that simply move the count in the pitcher’s favor don’t get counted in wOBA (or any outcome metric), so a pitcher who frequently uses a pitch to go from 1-1 to 1-2 won’t get credit in these kinds of numbers, even though getting into pitcher’s counts is a huge part of being successful. What you really want is linear weights per pitch, which takes into account the results of every pitch thrown and the change in value based on the count it was thrown in.

Thankfully, we have just such a stat. Here is the same chart as above, only based on the run value of each four-seam fastball thrown this year for those 67 pitchers. To account for different usage levels, this is runs above (or below) average per 100 four-seam fastballs thrown.

CuetoRunValue

Cueto is pushing +3 runs per 100 four-seam fastballs; no one else is over +2 runs. In fact, no other starter in the PITCHF/x era has ever been over +2 runs per 100 four-seam fastballs. The results that Cueto is getting on his fastball are just unprecedented.

But, as we’ve been preaching for years, you shouldn’t just judge a pitcher on his results, and there’s no question that a large part of the crazy wOBA and run value numbers for Cueto are driven by his absurdly low BABIP. Cueto has allowed just a .167 BABIP on four-seam fastballs, and since these numbers are not fielding independent, he’s getting 100% of the credit for these outs on balls in play. You don’t need to be an apostle of FIP to guess that a .167 BABIP probably isn’t entirely Cueto’s doing, and won’t continue going forward.

But let’s be clear; this isn’t just a BABIP thing. In fact, we can highlight Cueto’s fastball dominance without ever mentioning a ball in play. For instance, let’s just look at rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone. Z-Contact% is one of the better measures of just the dominance of stuff, as getting hitters to swing and miss at strikes can only really be done with pretty great pitches. As you might expect, the in-zone contact rate on four-seam fastballs is very high; a mean of 88% and a median of 89%. As a basic rule, in-zone fastballs generate contact.

Unless Johnny Cueto is throwing them. Opposing hitters are making contact on just 78% of their swings at Cueto’s four-seam on pitches in the zone, which is easily the lowest of the 67 pitchers with 400+ four-seams that we’ve been looking at. Michael Wacha is second at 81%. During the PITCHF/x era, there have been 493 pitcher seasons in which at least 1,000 four-seam fastballs were thrown; only two of those 493 have resulted in a Z-Contact% below the 80% line. If Cueto could sustain this rate of contact on in-zone fastballs, it would be the lowest ever posted in the PITCHF/x era.

The numbers Cueto is getting from his fastball just don’t even make sense. 70% of the four-seam fastballs he’s thrown have been in the upper half of the strike zone, but when hitters put the pitch in play, it generally results in a ground ball (52%). Four-seam fastballs do not generate ground balls — the average GB% for the 67 pitchers four-seams we’ve been looking at is 39%, and the median is 38% — and no one really gets ground balls on pitches up in the zone.

There’s Cueto, though, pounding hitters up in the zone with fastballs, combining the lowest in-zone contact rate with the 6th highest ground ball rate on his four-seam fastball. And when hitters do hit his four-seam in the air, it’s not going anywhere. 35% of the fly balls the pitch has generated have stayed on the infield; that’s also the sixth-best total for that pitch in all of baseball.

If you were to rank the outcomes you’d want for a pitcher on any given pitch that a hitter decided to swing at, it would probably go something like this:

1. Swinging Strike
2. Infield Fly
3. Ground Ball

Those three events are basically all hitters are doing against his four-seam fastball this year, and the result is that the pitch has allowed just 10 hits, and nine of them have been singles. He’s the only pitcher in baseball with 400+ four-seam fastballs thrown and no home runs allowed. The only other pitcher to only give up one double on his four-seamer this year is Colin McHugh, but he’s also allowed three home runs on the pitch.

To be honest, I can’t give you a reason for why Cueto has been able to do this. The best guess I could make is that his delivery is particularly deceptive, and hitters just aren’t picking up the ball until it’s too late. There’s nothing that really stands out in terms of velocity, movement, or location that would suggest that Cueto’s four-seam fastball should be essentially unhittable. But for the first 14 starts of the season, that’s exactly what it’s been.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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TheoK
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TheoK
2 years 17 days ago

My money is still on a Dodgers pitcher for the Cy Young.

David
Guest
David
2 years 17 days ago

Weird I was actually just looking into this today. While the BABIP is absurdly low, ‘fastball quality’ and BABIP have a fairly significant negative correlation (well more than any other pitch type). http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/tool-basically-every-pitching-stat-correlation/

Shao
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Shao
2 years 17 days ago

Could that be high quality pitch less likely to be put into play, and if it does, that would be a bad pitch and thus higher BABIP?

a eskpert
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a eskpert
2 years 17 days ago

That’s more fact than intuition. If you have trouble making contact with a pitch, you’re also likely to struggle to square up the ball.

tz
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tz
2 years 17 days ago

From looking his game charts this year, he’s throwing both his 4-seam and 2-seam fastballs all over the strike zone. Also, it looks like the difference in movement between the two is big horizontally but not a whole lot vertically. So the 4-seamers down in the zone might actually get a good % of groundballs.

In scientific terms, he’s driving the hitters nuts:

http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfxg.aspx?playerid=6893&position=P&season=2014&date=0&dh=0

james wilson
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james wilson
2 years 17 days ago

I haven’t watch Cueto pitch this year, but what you are describing is the result of batter uncertainty. Cueto has too much stuff to go with command.
A guy in that zone can make a mistake and see if fouled off. Same pitch from a guy who is not dealing gets hammered.

MGL
Guest
MGL
2 years 17 days ago

One very important factor in the value of a pitch is how often the pitcher throws it. If I have a certain pitch and it is a good one and I only throw it occasionally, of course it is going to be a successful pitch because no one is expecting it.

Now, game theory of course says that if I have a pitch that I hardly ever throw but I am very successful at it (more than my other pitches), then I should throw it more, until the value of that pitch is brought down to near the value of my other pitches. But that is only true for pitches thrown in the exact same situations against the same players and counts, etc.

The same thing with the count. The value of pitches cannot be looked at in isolation. If I throw a certain pitch primarily in pitcher’s counts, then, again, it is going to have a much higher value than other pitches that I throw in hitters’ counts.

I would guess that the pitchers in the left part of the last graph above, throw fewer four seam fastballs than the pitchers in the right half, on the average, and that they also throw them more in pitcher’s counts (pitching “backwards”).

You also must adjust for the hitters faced. Perhaps Cueto likes to throw his 4 seamer against the weaker hitters for some reason, and he used other pitches to get the sluggers out.

So while I’m sure that Cueto’s fastball, even after adjusting for all these things, is probably still remarkable, I caution against doing any analysis that looks at the value of a certain pitch or pitches in isolation.

Keith B
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Keith B
2 years 17 days ago

Is this not explained away by the chart requiring no less than 400 four seam fastballs thrown?

RMR
Guest
2 years 17 days ago

Watching Cueto, his command just jumps out at you. He works all over the zone with a variety of stuff. Yesterday, he threw changeups inside to righties. As with most extreme outliers, the explanation is probably a little bit of everything, but the inability of hitters to sit on anything against him certain is one of those factors.

Nick
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Nick
2 years 17 days ago

Do you think Cueto’s strikeout rate is sustainable? His SwStr% is actually down from last year and ranks only 32nd among qualified starters.

Also worth mentioning that he ranks 4th among qualified starters; both Kershaw and Sale will likely finish ahead of him if they can get to the minimum IP.

jac
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jac
2 years 17 days ago

I’ve watched every one of Cueto’s starts, and almost all of his pitches have been really good this year. From a fan scouting perspective, I think the biggest change has been his mastery of his cutter. He’s getting a ton of called 3rd strikes on that pitch this year that he didn’t get get last year.

The five pitch mix that he has is just set up perfectly to be devastating. two fastballs that run different amounts, in on RH, or backdoor to LH. The cutter freezes RH that expect it to run in on them as they watch it cut back to the inside corner. The change up and the slider are thrown at almost exactly the same speed, 10 MPH off the fastballs, and move in opposite directions.

With that he can attack both sides of the plate against RH and LH hitters, and he can change speeds to both as well. With his command, it’s the best arsenal that I’ve seen since 99-2000 Pedro.

Steven
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Steven
2 years 17 days ago

It’s not even close to “the best arsenal I’ve seen since 99-2000 Pedro.” If you mean the best stuff, he’s not even close. Just this year, you can see better stuff from Strasburg, Darvish, and Ventura, at an absolute minimum. If you mean performance, then he is tied for 4th in RA9 this year, and less by WAR.

Hmmm
Guest
Hmmm
2 years 17 days ago

Tanaka too.

Max
Guest
Max
2 years 16 days ago

He’s 4th in ra9 war despite having -.8 lob wins. Hitters have been less successful hitting off him than any other pitcher in baseball. Plus he controls the running game better than any other pitcher. He’s been incredible.

Max
Guest
Max
2 years 16 days ago

Also leading MLB in innings. So he’s been the hardest pitcher to hit (woba), has the best pickoff move, and leads the majors in innings. Incredible

Paul Dreyfus
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Paul Dreyfus
2 years 17 days ago

Regression ahead? Usually when something seems impossible, it’s unsustainable. See Blackmon’s April, Alexei Ramirez’s fast start, Aaron Harang, etc.

big red machine
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big red machine
2 years 17 days ago

my goodness… don’t even mention Cueto and Harang in the same sentence…

Iron
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Iron
2 years 17 days ago

Harang’s 2005-2007 was criminally under-appreciated by Reds fans. He was a top ten pitcher over that stretch (14.5 WAR) but played on some pretty bad Reds teams. Cueto’s best year so far, 2012, was arguably not as good as the average of that three year stretch. I’m not saying this year won’t blow it out of the water and I’m not speculating on how many potentially good years lie ahead, but to date Harang had a higher, wider peak than Cueto.

Michael
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Michael
2 years 17 days ago

Judging by the URL of your “game’s best pickoff move” link, I’m guessing you have do what I have to do anytime I want to find an old article on this site: Google for it.

Billy
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Billy
2 years 17 days ago

Cueto does a tremendous job at holding runners on, as we know. Is there any data to look at the difference in the leads that runners get off particular pitchers, how that translates into a longer/shorter time to reach the next base, and how frequently it is the difference between being safe or out?

vince
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vince
2 years 17 days ago

Clearly just a mus-classification by Pitch/FX. I am certain that Cueto has not revolutionized the four-seamer.

Iron
Guest
Iron
2 years 16 days ago

I am certain you have no data to back your erroneous claim.

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