Examining the Career Year of Johnny Cueto, Trade Target

Johnny Cueto has been invoked frequently of late as a likely trade target for contending teams. The combination of his pending free agency and the Reds’ own disappointments makes the probability quite high that he’ll change clubs before the end of the month. Whichever team trades for the Cincinnati Reds’ ace is going to get a pitcher on his way to having the best year of an already very good career. What factors, specifically, have led to his performance?

After above-average seasons from 2009 to 2011, Cueto broke out in 2012 with a 2.78 ERA, 3.27 FIP and 4.7 WAR in 217.0 innings. Injuries cut short his 2013 season, but Cueto came back last season and paced the National League with 243.1 innings pitched. He finished the season with a 2.33 ERA and 3.30 FIP, and he has continued to pitch well this season, producing a 2.73 ERA and 3.06 FIP which would be the lowest of his career.

Cueto has been aggressive in the strike zone, leading to a career-low 4.7% walk rate, but this approach has not cost him strikeouts: he’s produced a 24.3% strikeout rate, representing nearly the best figure of his career by that measure. Cueto is one of ten qualified pitchers this season with a strikeout rate exceeding 20% and a walk rate lower than 5%. Only Max Scherzer, Michael Pineda, and Jason Hammel better Cueto in both categories. Cueto’s percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone is above 50% for the first time in his career. The charts below of the strike-zone maps for 2012-2014 and 2015 show Cueto’s evolution as a strike-thrower.


Screenshot 2015-07-16 at 1.30.46 PM


And for 2015:

Screenshot 2015-07-16 at 1.33.16 PM

Throwing strikes is particularly important on the first pitch of an at-bat, as the gap between 0-1 and 1-0 leads to more than a 100-point difference in on-base percentage. Cueto has done a good job getting ahead of the hitter and keeping the batter on his heels, getting a first-pitch strike a career-high 66.5% of the time, ranking in the top ten in MLB. The 29-year-old righthander has also seen his efficiency improve with his willingness to challenge hitters. In 2012, Cueto was averaging close to 16 pitches per inning, but this season that number is under 15, saving him more than two full games of pitches over the course of a season.

Despite throwing so many first-pitch strikes, hitters have not been able to attack Cueto because he does a very good job keeping hitters off balance. Cueto throws five, sometimes six pitches: four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter, change, slider, and curve. While he throws his four-seam fastball more than one-third of the time and his two-seamer, change, and cutter just under 20% of the time, he further varies his pitches on the first strike, per Brooks Baseball. Cueto still throws his four-seam fastball 28% of the time on the first pitch, and his change, cutter, and slider between 15% and 20% of the time, but close to half of the sliders and curves he has thrown this season have come on the first pitch. Forcing hitters to contend with six different offerings to start an at-bat puts pressure on the hitter even if the pitch is right down the middle.

Once he gets ahead in the count, Cueto uses his full arsenal to put hitters away, relying heavily on his four-seam fastball. When he came into the league, his slider was a primary put-away pitch. He uses it less frequently now, but it worked here to get Michael Taylor out on a full count.

As Cueto has used his slider with less frequency, he has increased the use of both his change and his cutter. The graph below shows Cueto’s pitch-mix when he gets the hitter to two strikes.


Cueto’s change is now his best put-away pitch with a whiff rate of 23%, per Brooks Baseball. Here it is against Matt den Dekker.

The cutter is not a great strikeout pitch for Cueto, using it along with the two-seamer to induce ground balls, but that did not stop him from getting the cutter by Bryce Harper.

Hitter’s must prepare for the change, slider, and cutter, but as the graph above shows, Cueto has been challenging hitters with his fastball like never before and the pitch is working. His 12% whiff rate on the fastball is higher than it has been at any point in his career. By keeping hitters off balance, he does not always need to get a swing and a miss. On his 100th pitch of the night against the Nationals earlier this month, he sends Ian Desmond a 95 mph fastball on a 2-2 count, but Desmond can only watch the pitch go by.

Cueto is not completely without concerns. For the team acquiring Cueto or potentially signing him to a long-term contract, Cueto’s ability to prevent runs above and beyond his fielding-independent marks might be regarded as a possible sticking point. For his career, Cueto has allowed a well below-average .272 BABIP — and his .238 mark last year and .236 number this season are (obviously) even lower than that, leading to some questions about whether Cueto’s ERA is sustainable.

When we see a FIP with a great disparity from ERA, there are dueling impulses first to (a) dismiss the ERA as lucky or unlucky and then (b) find some sort of explanation for the difference. With Cueto, the very low BABIP explains much of the difference in FIP, and Billy Hamilton and the rest of Cincinnati’s defense ranks among the game’s best over the past few seasons, perhaps providing some explanation for the difference. Cueto’s FIP is low enough to make him a very good pitcher, regardless, but there is an alternate theory, or possible additional contributing factor, involving Cueto’s home park.

Great America Ballpark features the second-biggest home-run park factor in Major League Baseball, second only to Coors Field in Colorado. Since the beginning of 2012, Cueto has given up 33 homers in Cincinnati and just 22 on the road. During that time, Cueto’s BABIP against on the road is .276 and the FIP differential on the road is not all that big: just a 3.06 ERA compared to a 3.31 FIP. The difference between ERA and FIP at home is massive, with 2.05 ERA at home compared to a 3.28 FIP to go along with a .237 BABIP. League-wide, BABIP against, ERA and FIP are all lower at home than the road, but not to the level that would explain away Cueto’s differential.

Under most circumstances, we could look to Cueto’s xFIP, which uses a league-average home-run rate, to potentially remove some poor luck on fly balls. For Cueto, it is possible he possesses a home-run-suppressing skill that is masked by Cueto’s home park. Again looking at the years starting in 2012, Cueto’s HR/FB rate is 12.6% at home and 7.5% on the road. If Cueto’s 7.5% HR/FB rate is more representative of his skill, he is one of the very best in the league in that regard. Turning 11 homers in Cincinnati to hits reduces his FIP by almost half a run and increases his BABIP by ten points. Random variation and great defense is still a more likely explanation, but the argument above — that would-be fly-ball outs or doubles have become home runs in Cincinnati — at least presents an additional potential factor for consideration.

Cueto is a very good pitcher in the middle of potentially the best season of his career. He has a great fastball and keeps hitters off balance with an assortment of good offerings — and a new commitment to challenging hitters has led to the fewest number of free passes in Cueto’s career. Walt Jocketty is often criticized for the extensions he has handed out, but the one he gave Cueto got the Reds two of Cueto’s free-agent years for just $10 million per year. That move has paid off for the Reds as far as getting great production at a low price. It should pay off for the Reds shortly as they trade him in an attempt to bolster their farm system. And it will likely pay off for the team that trades for him, potentially getting the biggest difference-maker available in tight pennant races this season.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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He uses it less frequently now, but it worked here to get Michael Choice out on a full count.

Actually, that’s Cueto making Michael Taylor look like Michael Choice.

Carson Cistulli

Duly edited. Thanks.