If Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto had managed to pitch just six more innings in a 2011 that started late because of right shoulder inflammation and ended early because of a strained lat, he’d have finished second only to NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw with a 2.31 ERA. (Assuming that in those six innings, he pitched to a consistent level of production as he had before, of course.)
Ending up behind only Kershaw and just ahead of Roy Halladay is pretty impressive company, yet I can’t say I was completely buying into Cueto simply based on that. His sparkling 2.31 ERA was hardly backed up by a 3.45 FIP and a 3.90 xFIP; along with declining velocity and strikeout rates, it seemed that Cueto’s nice season was more a mirage of a career-low .249 BABIP than anything else. I believe that prior to the season on another site, I named him my “most overrated” pitcher headed into 2012, figuring that the ERA would likely to return back to his previously established rates.
Three months into the season, Cueto is outdoing himself with a 2.21 ERA despite having his BABIP indeed return to almost exactly his career average, and clearly I couldn’t have been more wrong about him. How is he doing it?
Right off the bat, there’s one obvious improvement in Cueto’s game, and that’s that he’s issuing fewer free passes than at any time in his career; at 1.86 per game, he’s walking nearly a full man per nine fewer than he had been in 2010 & 2011. That makes him one of the ten stingiest in the National League as far as allowing walks, and the calculus there is simple: fewer men on base equals fewer chances to score.
Of the runners he does allow to reach base, few are scoring in huge bunches because Cueto has managed to become one of the few pitchers to avoid the home run curse that often comes with pitching in Cincinnati’s offense-friendly park. His 0.44 HR/9 makes him the only Reds starter to allow fewer than one homer per nine innings, and overall he’s the second-best on the staff in that respect. That also makes for the sixth-lowest rate in baseball, and most of the guys ahead of him – Gio Gonzalez, Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson, even the surprising Wade Miley – have been among the most successful starters in the game in 2012. (Also, there’s Kevin Millwood. I have no idea how to explain that, other than in part, “Seattle”. The universe is a strange place sometimes.)
Cueto’s control has manifested itself in other ways, as he’s been able to improve his previously sub-par first pitch strike percentage to about league-average, while also increasing his strikeout rate over last year – despite his swinging-strike percentage actually decreasing. While his FIP once again isn’t quite as great as his ERA, these small changes in his peripherals have brought that down to a 3.03 level, which is still very good and hardly something to complain about. As he works through his age-26 season, Cueto’s blend of excellent command and solid ability to avoid the big hit is more than paying off, and I have no issue with admitting that my expectations for him were selling him far too short.
Still, part of me sees him as a sell-high candidate, because traditionally he’s had trouble sustaining his quality first half performance (.696 OPS against, 3.26 ERA) into the second half (.760 OPS, 4.29 ERA). With that track record, a history of arm soreness, and Dusty Baker as his manager, it’s fair to wonder if he’s set up to continue to succeed as June turns into July, August, & September. Considering he’s on the verge of double-digit wins and will probably be an All-Star, it shouldn’t be difficult to find value for him. Of course, only if you can get good value; hanging onto a guy with a good team behind him and one of the lowest ERAs in baseball is hardly a terrible outcome.