Johnny Cueto Brings a Veteran Presence to a Promising Marlins Rotation

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award went to Justin Verlander, but were it not for Verlander’s historic return from Tommy John surgery, the hardware could have gone to Johnny Cueto instead. In 2022, Cueto signed a minor league contract with the White Sox on Opening Day. There was little doubt he would eventually make the major league roster, but it was still telling that the former All-Star and Cy Young finalist was forced to sign a non-guaranteed deal. He hadn’t thrown a full season since 2016, and as he entered the back half of his 30s, the once great pitcher’s career seemed to be winding down.

The veteran right-hander went on to pitch 25 games for Chicago, tossing 158.1 innings with a 3.35 ERA and 2.4 WAR. Only two AL hurlers, Framber Valdez and Shane Bieber, averaged more innings per start (min. 100 IP). Best of all, Cueto kept off the injured list, and from his debut on May 16 through the end of the season, he never missed a start. As a reward for his bounce-back performance, he earned himself a big league contract with the Marlins worth $8.5 million. The deal comes with a $10.5 million team option for 2024 (or a $2.5 million buyout).

Steamer projects a 4.59 ERA for Cueto in 154 IP next season, while ZiPS projected a 4.50 ERA in 144 IP before he signed with Miami. Those are perfectly respectable stats for a 37-year-old pitcher, and it’s excellent news for the Marlins, who only had two starters throw more than 120 innings last year. Even so, I’d like to see Cueto surpass those numbers in 2023. I always root for veterans to thrive and prolong their careers, and I’m hopeful Cueto’s resurgence last season was more than a flash in the pan. He was one of eight starters age 36 or older to throw 100+ innings, all of whom plan to return next year. I generally try to subdue my fandom in my writing, but it’s impossible not to cheer for this cohort:

Starters Age 36+ in 2022
Player 2022 Age IP ERA FIP WAR
Justin Verlander 39 175.0 1.75 2.49 6.1
Max Scherzer 37 145.1 2.29 2.62 4.4
Johnny Cueto 36 153.1 3.29 3.76 2.5
Zack Greinke 38 137.0 3.68 4.03 1.9
Adam Wainwright 40 191.2 3.71 3.66 2.8
Rich Hill 42 124.1 4.27 3.92 1.8
Corey Kluber 36 164.0 4.34 3.57 3.0
Charlie Morton 38 172.0 4.34 4.26 1.5

The secret for Cueto to outperform his projections is to keep his home run rate down. He was excellent at preventing the long ball at the peak of his career, allowing just 0.74 HR/9 from 2010 to ’16. Unfortunately, his home run rate snowballed over the next five years, and he gave up 1.30 HR/9 from 2017 to ’21. In 2022, Cueto returned to form, holding opponents to just 0.85 HR/9. However, his 7.7% HR/FB rate was also surprisingly low, and thus, while his ERA and FIP were better than they had been in years, his 4.38 xFIP loomed large in the background. Steamer and ZiPS project his home run rate will regress to 2017-21 levels next season.

Despite those projections, there is reason to believe Cueto can maintain a low HR/FB rate going forward (though maybe not quite as low as 7.7%). For one thing, this didn’t come entirely out of the blue. Cueto has posted a lower HR/9 and HR/FB rate in each of the past three years, which could be a sign he’s actively working to get his home run level down to where it once was. Not all fly balls are created equal, and in 2022, Cueto induced significantly more soft and medium-hit fly balls than he did in preceding years:

Cueto’s Fly Balls
Season Soft%+Med% Hard%
2017 59.9% 40.1%
2018 64.9% 35.1%
2019 53.8% 46.2%
2020 64.6% 35.4%
2021 65.6% 34.4%
2022 69.1% 30.9%

One way he achieved this was by limiting pulled contact in favor of fly balls to center and the opposite field:

Direction of Cueto’s Fly Balls
Season Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2017 31.2% 35.0% 33.8%
2018 19.3% 35.1% 45.6%
2019 38.5% 38.5% 23.1%
2020 24.6% 43.1% 32.3%
2021 25.6% 32.8% 41.6%
2022 19.1% 42.8% 38.1%

Pulled fly balls are more likely to be hard-hit and more likely to result in home runs. Indeed, 29% of pulled fly balls went out of the park in 2022, accounting for 63% of all homers. Meanwhile, hard-hit fly balls left the yard 32% of the time and made up 97% of all jacks. It’s clear how a pitcher can limit home runs by preventing pulled and hard-hit fly balls.

Inducing soft contact in the air isn’t necessarily a sustainable skill from year to year, but Cueto has done this before. From 2010 to ’16, the seven-year peak of his career, 31.1% of his fly balls were classified as hard-hit, and he allowed 0.74 HR/9 with an 8.9% HR/FB rate. Those home run rates are even more impressive considering he played most of those seasons with the Reds at Great American Ballpark, one of the most homer-happy stadiums in the league. Next season, he’ll pitch his home games at LoanDepot Park, the opposite of a bandbox. The average home run in 2022 was hit at 104.3 mph, but the average home run at LoanDepot clocked in a tick faster. Similarly, 85% of all home runs were barreled in 2022, but at LoanDepot, that number jumps to 91%. Simply put, batters in Miami have to hit the ball harder than usual to get it out the yard, giving Cueto a little more wiggle room to work with.

Another promising indication that Cueto can maintain his low HR/FB rate is that his success on fly balls in 2022 correlated with a substantial change to his pitch mix. At the beginning of the season, he relied primarily on his sinker and slider against righties and his cutter and changeup against lefties. However, as the year went on, he began to increase his cutter and four-seam fastball usage, while reducing his slider, sinker, and changeup usage, against all batters:

As you can tell from the graph, Cueto’s pitch mix was a work in progress all season long. Even so, it’s clear a significant change took place in July. That’s when the green, grey, and blue lines start trending downwards, and the red and yellow lines begin to creep up. Curiously, July is also when Cueto really started to limit hard contact on fly balls:

Cueto’s Fly Balls by Month
Timeframe HR/FB Oppo% Hard%
May-June 12.7% 28.6% 38.1%
July-October 5.3% 42.7% 27.5%

This might seem a bit counterintuitive, especially regarding the four-seam fastball. A four-seamer is the easiest pitch to crush, so you might think more four-seam fastballs would lead to more hard contact. Indeed, Cueto allowed more hard-hit fly balls against his four-seamer than his slider, changeup, or sinker. Yet by using his four-seamer and cutter as his primary offerings, he gave himself the luxury to use his other pitchers more selectively. His sinker became a weapon for inducing weak fly balls from right-handed batters, and his changeup filled a similar role against lefties. Overall, he found the right way to deploy his diverse arsenal so as to keep opposing batters off guard.

To be clear, a few months is too small of a sample to make any major judgments about Cueto’s new approach. It’s hard to say if he can continue tricking batters this way in 2023. All I can say for now is that he made significant changes last season and those changes correlated with a good run of success. Hopefully, that bodes well for the future. If Cueto continues to limit hard contact and induce opposite-field fly balls, he’ll be a much more effective pitcher than his projections suggest.

In Cueto, the Marlins will be getting something they haven’t had in a long time – a starting pitcher over 30. The last pitcher over 30 to make even five starts for Miami was Wei-Yin Chen in 2018, while the last pitcher over 35 to do so was Al Leiter in 2005. Only one starter as old as Cueto has ever pitched a full season for the Marlins: 45-year-old Charlie Hough, who started the first game in franchise history.

Thus, Cueto will join one of the youngest and most promising rotations in baseball, bringing his brand of fun to the equation. He threw six different pitches last season, the fastest coming in at 95 mph and the slowest at 66. The shimmy in his delivery is the stuff of legend, and hopefully, his quest to defy Father Time will be as well. He brings something different to a staff replete with hard-throwing young guns:

Marlins Starting Pitchers
Name Age (2023) FBv (2022)
Sandy Alcantara 27 97.9
Jesus Luzardo 25 96.1
Edward Cabrera 25 96.0
Trevor Rogers 25 94.6
Pablo Lopez 27 93.6
Johnny Cueto 37 91.4

Of course, different is not the same as better, and truth be told, it’s hard to say if the Marlins are actually any better now than they were before. Our depth charts had their rotation as the eighth-best in baseball before the signing and only the 10th-best after. Cueto is a solid addition, but major league signings don’t happen in a vacuum. Every inning he pitches has to come from somewhere, which means fewer opportunities for the aforementioned young guns. The Marlins already had five healthy and capable big-league starters, with Braxton Garrett and top prospect Eury Pérez around as additional depth. Thus, you might expect one of Lopez, Luzardo, Cabrera, or Rogers to be wearing new colors when pitchers and catchers report next month.

If Kim Ng can flip one of those arms for an major league-ready bat, the Cueto signing will make a lot more sense. The Marlins are still treading water in the liminal space between contending and rebuilding, and fixing up the offense is the next step they need to take. Cueto is fun to watch and great for the clubhouse, but he won’t change Miami’s outlook for 2023.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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1 year ago

Cueto’s had one of the best under the radar careers of any pitcher this century. He’s won 143 games, had a transcendent season (2014) as well as an exceptional peak (2010-16, 139 ERA+ across close to 1300 IP) started an All-Star game, been a 20-game winner, won a World Series as an ace, made well over $160M in salary and has a 3.44 career ERA across 2192.2 IP. His ERA+ is 118, on the level of Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester. The only thing he’s missing is a Cy Young, and I can easily argue he deserved it in 2014.

Also a fun, memorable pitcher who makes the game better by being in it. In a game obsessed with efficiency, mechanics like Cueto’s are falling out of favor, and he’s always done all the little FIP-beating things: exceptional fielding pitcher and one of the best righties you will ever see at controlling the running game. Every year he stays on an MLB staff is a good one. He also has a sub-4 FIP and 3.66 ERA across 273 IP the last two years! He can still go, and is going to a great park for his contact-inducing ways. Hoping to see him cross the 150 W / 2000 K marks soon.

This also practically guarantees the Marlins are trading a starter. Sandy and Eury are off limits, but everyone else is fair game.

Last edited 1 year ago by mariodegenzgz