Heeeeeere’s Johnny (Cueto)

I am quite shocked by the lack of fanfare for Johnny Cueto‘s performance thus far. This is officially the first article written about him all season on this site. With a 2.01 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over 89.2 innings, he has been fantastic, at least on the surface. Below the surface of course, things get interesting.

Before diving into the statistics, for those who have seen him pitch in past years and this year, there is a noticeable difference in his delivery. I have found very little talk about his new delivery online or when exactly the change began. However, he now seems to be pitching like a mini Hideo Nomo, rotating his body around further and pausing before pitching the ball. If executed well, this change could potentially add more deception, hopefully benefiting his BABIP and maybe HR/FB ratio. Nomo himself had a career BABIP of just .284, below the league average, and in the four seasons FanGraphs has his IFFB% for, it was well above the league average too. This supports the idea that the delivery does indeed deceive hitters and makes it tougher to make solid contact against. Of course, in that short time period his batted ball data is on the site for, his LD% was elevated, so maybe we don’t have enough statistical support yet to jump to any conclusions about the delivery.

Cueto’s BABIP sits at .217. If he pitched enough innings to qualify for the FanGraphs leaderboard, he would lead the Majors in the metric. Although his IFFB% is above the league average, it’s only at 11.8%, so it’s not drastically so. His LD% is also below league average at 15.8%, but again, not so much so to believe the delivery is dramatically helping him deceive opposing batters. The Reds are tied for first in baseball in UZR/150, so Cueto is also getting a ton of help from his defense. That said, new delivery or not, and excellent defensive support taken into account, there is little chance Cueto could sustain such a low BABIP the rest of the way.

Most troubling has been his K% (thank you David for adding this!), which has declined every season he has been in the Majors. His SwStk% of 7.2% does not give much hope of a strikeout rate spike either. It is quite surprising that a pitcher who averages 93.3 miles per hour with his fastball and gets it up to 95-95 with regularity, does not generate more swings and misses and strikeouts.

One of the main reasons I wanted to look at Cueto was because of his big jump in GB%. He was always a ground ball neutral pitcher, but suddenly this year his GB% is hovering near 55%. That mark would rank him 10th among all starters. To start, he has thrown his two-seamer 41% of the time, versus 30% last season. Next, he has induced even more grounders on those fastballs this year, 55% to 36%. His GB% has been at least 49.5% in each month, and since GB% becomes reliable after only 150 batters faced (Cueto has faced 350 at this point), then it would be fair to assume this is no fluke.

Still, taken all this together, he has been quite fortunate so far, as his xFIP of 3.79 is well above his 2.01 ERA. Given the Reds fantastic defense and the potential deception his new delivery may be providing, it is likely he outperforms his xFIP. But not to this degree. With his lackluster strikeout rate, he could see his fantasy value plummet quickly. I am actually an owner of his and have been aggressively shopping him in the last month with no success. I would advise other owners to do the same, hopefully with better luck than I have had.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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The Reds announcers call it the Luis Tiant move with the leg twist. His slider has a lot of downward movement this year, and I think he gets a lot of his GB from it. Also, though his strikeouts are down, so are his walks, and it seems like he’s traded K’s for more command as he works in the running 2 seamer more that gets him a lot of the GB. I haven’t looked at Pitch/fx, but I think some of these trends are for real.

Cueto will undoubtedly regress toward his peripherals, but his numbers have been trending this way for the past few years, as he has steadily traded strikeouts for groundballs and upped his innings count per start. The defense is helping, but this isn’t all a mirage.