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Johnny Cueto: Sell High Candidate

Over the last two seasons, Johnny Cueto‘s ERA (2.38) has been lower than any other pitcher in the majors. His ERA is about one full point lower than his FIP (3.24) and xFIP (3.75). I will look at how he achieved the low ERA and if it can be maintained.

It is easier to see why people could be leery of Cueto’s ERA over the past couple of seasons. His strikeout and walk numbers are not amazing. Here are some National League pitchers with better K and BB over the last couple of seasons.

Name: K/9, BB/9, ERA
Johnny Cueto: 6.6, 2.3, 2.38
Jordan Zimmerman: 6.8, 1.7, 2.86
Chris Carpenter: 7.2, 2.1, 3.45
R.A. Dickey: 7.4, 2.2, 3.07
Matt Cain: 7.7, 2.2, 2.86
Ian Kennedy: 8.0, 2.2, 3.44

The other 5 pitchers, which all had better K and BB values, averaged around a 3.00 ERA.

The big key for Cueto’s lower ERA is his 0.47 HR/9 rate. It is the best in the league over the past two combined seasons. His 51% GB rate is good, but the key to the low HR rate is his 6.0% HR/FB%. The 6.0% HR/FB% value is the same as Matt Cain. Matt is also known for having suppressing home runs, maybe with some help from his home park (help that Cueto can’t rely on). The difference between the two is that Cueto has a 30% fly ball rate and Cain’s FB% is at 43%.

Besides the HR suppression, he has maintained a good BABIP (0.272) over the two year span. He is generally able to keep the ball on the ground. Additionally, the Reds have the 5th highest UZR value (44 runs saved above average) over the same span to help turn those ground balls into outs.

One of the main ways a pitcher can have an ERA significantly lower than their ERA estimators is to pitch better with runners on base. Cueto is not one of those pitchers. Here are stats with no runners on base and once runners get on.

Bases Empty
2011: 2.4 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9, 0.254 BABIP
2012: 7.3 K/BB, 0.4 HR/9, 0.296 BABIP
Career: 3.1 K/BB, 1.1 HR/ 9, 0.286 BABIP

Base Runners
2011: 1.9 K/BB, 0.3 HR/9, 0.243 BABIP
2012: 1.9 K/BB, 0.9 HR/9, 0.284 BABIP
Career: 1.9 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9, 0.284 BABIP

While he sees some improvement in his HR/9 and BABIP with runners on base, the gains are not enough to over come the drop in K/BB. He doesn’t turn into superman once players get on base, and the jury is out on how much of a repeatable skill this is.

Johnny Cueto has had an amazing ERA over the past two seasons. He is pitching as well as any pitcher in the league, even if he regresses some. I just don’t see how he can maintain his ERA under 2.50 in the future. It may be the perfect time to sell high on him. It is tough to sell high, but I don’t expect him to pitch any better than he is currently over his career. He is at his peak and his value will only decrease. Take advantage of his value now.