Johnny Cueto’s Sophomore Season

Last offseason, we took an in-depth look at Johnny Cueto‘s rookie season with the Cincinnati Reds. The Dominican-born right-hander, equipped with low-90’s gas and a sharp slider, ripped through the minor leagues. With Cincy, Cueto tossed 174 innings, with a promising 4.37 Expected Fielding Independent ERA (xFIP) in 2008. I concluded:

Johnny Cueto remains an extremely talented young pitcher. His 93 MPH fastball and mid-80’s power slider can be nearly impossible to hit at times, as evidenced by his minuscule 76.9 Contact% (9th-best in baseball, sandwiched between Cole Hamels and Johan Santana). However, he may want to utilize his changeup more often in 2009, as he threw his slider over 32% of the time (the 5th-highest rate in the big leagues) while using the change just 6.7%. When he threw it, Cueto’s change was a nasty looking pitch, with horizontal movement that was identical to his fastball and a whopping 7 inches of vertical drop compared to his heater.

Cueto has the tools necessary to establish himself as one of the best starters in the big leagues. However, fantasy owners might need to experience some of his growing pains first, as he learns to use his full repertoire and limit the long-ball damage.

One year later, it appears as though Cueto didn’t make a whole lot of improvements to his game. In 2008, he punched out 8.17 batters per nine innings, with 3.52 BB/9. This past year, the soon-to-be 24 year-old compiled a 4.57 xFIP in 171 frames, with 6.93 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9. His ERA dipped from 4.81 to 4.41, but that was largely due to a decrease in BABIP (.309 to .296) and home run per fly ball rate (13.9 percent to 11.2 percent).

Cueto was among the toughest starters to make contact with during his rookie year, but hitters put the bat on the ball 82.7% of the time in 2009 (80-81% MLB average). His percentage of contact within the strike zone increased from 85.4% to 88.1% (87-88% MLB average).

While Cueto’s walk rate did fall, he actually located fewer pitches within the zone (51.2% in ’08, 47.6% in ’09; the MLB average is 49-51%) and garnered fewer first-pitch strikes (59.4% in ’08, 56.5% in ’09; 58-59% MLB average).

His pitch selection essentially remained the same. Cueto tossed a fastball about 62 percent of the time, while supplementing the heater with mid-80’s sliders (30 percent) and occasional changeups (8 percent). As Trip Somers’ Pitch F/X Tool shows, the fastball and slider didn’t generate as many whiffs this past season:

2008

Fastball: 6.8 Whiff%
Slider: 15.8 Whiff%
Changeup: 11.9 Whiff%

2009

Fastball: 5.8 Whiff%
Slider: 9.7 Whiff%
Changeup: 14.1 Whiff%

Overall, Cueto’s swinging strike rate fell from an excellent 10.1 percent in 2008 to 7.5 percent (7.8 percent average for starting pitchers).

A look at Cueto’s Pitch F/X data shows that the slider didn’t show near as much horizontal break in 2009. In ’08, the pitch broke away from righty batters 2.6 inches more than a pitch thrown without spin. In ’09, it broke away from same-handed hitters just 0.8 inches (the average for RHP is between 2-2.5 inches).

One could make the argument that late-season injuries dragged down some of these totals. According to the Fantasy Pitch F/X DL Tool, Cueto dealt with a hip flexor injury in early August, then hit the DL with shoulder inflammation shortly thereafter. He also missed a late-season start with the flu. Here are Johnny’s month-by-month numbers:

He clearly struggled to locate his pitches in July and August.

Entering 2010, Cueto’s value is hard to gauge. Is he healthy? While his innings totals haven’t been abusive, Cueto has logged a significant workload in the majors at a young age. And, can he regain the bite on that once-plus slider, while honing his changeup? To this point, his fastball has been a slightly below-average offering (-0.3 runs per 100 pitches), with the slider also in the red at -0.09 runs/100. The neglected changeup checks in at an ugly -1.12.

Cueto is plenty talented and has time on his side. But in order to take the next step, he must show durability and develop those secondary offerings.



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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton’s slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.



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Bodhizefa
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Bodhizefa

It’s a cliche, but Cueto’s going to have to adjust to the big league hitters. Finding that change-up with more consistency is going to be one of the keys.

Also, I seem to remember Cueto getting injured at some point last year but pitching through it (Dusty Baker, abuse, yadda yadda yadda). He had some velo dips at one point, if I remember correctly, but it was back up later on in the season. He’ll be an interesting test for Cincinnati pitching coaches this year to see if they can help him develop a plan against big leaguers.

He sure was fun to watch in ’08, so I hope he can figure it all out.

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