Johnny Cueto, Good Pitcher Made To Look Even Better

In some ways, this Reds season has turned out exactly like we expected. Way back in February, I worried that Cincinnati wouldn’t have enough offense to compete in 2014, and that the season would be a disappointment. It wasn’t hard to see why, really. Take a team that was 15th in wRC+ in 2013, replace Shin-Soo Choo’s elite on-base skills with the huge question mark of Billy Hamilton, do absolutely nothing else other than add the mediocre Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena to the bench, have Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick get another year older, and watch the offense collapse.

That’s what happened! Sort of. The Reds are 29th in wRC+, saved from last only by the Padres, and are probably going to lose more games than they have since 2008, but it hasn’t happened in exactly in the way we might have thought. Hamilton has been good enough. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, the only two Reds hitters you could have counted on entering the season, have had disaster years. Devin Mesoraco and Todd Frazier have had breakout campaigns. The end result is still bad, just a different kind of bad.

You can see the same thing on the pitching side, too, just in the other direction. A good, deep rotation was expected to be a strength, and it has. Homer Bailey had finally put it all together in 2013, earning himself a rich contract extension, and a full year of Tony Cingrani seemed fascinating. But Bailey, dealing with a bulging disk in his neck, made only 23 decent starts before undergoing flexor tendon surgery. Cingrani was a huge disappointment, dealt with shoulder issues and hasn’t been seen in the bigs since June. Mat Latos didn’t make his first start until June thanks to elbow trouble, then made only 16 before being shut down earlier this month with — wait for it — elbow trouble.

This shouldn’t be a good rotation. By one measure, it’s arguably been the best rotation. We should talk about that.

* * *

First, let’s talk about what “best” means, because that “arguably” comes with a huge asterisk. If you look at rotation WAR, you won’t find the Reds at No. 1. Or No. 10. Or even No. 20. No, you’ll find the Reds down at No. 21, worse than the Twins and Marlins. That’s not best, or even good. It’s mediocre.

That is, of course, because the standard WAR here is FIP-based, which by its very definition strips out the impact of defense in order to focus on the things a pitcher can control, and the Reds rotation, as a whole, doesn’t stand out in some of those areas. They’re middle-of-the-pack in strikeouts, slightly better in walks, and poor in home run prevention. There’s obviously more than goes into the calculations than that, but those are three of the main things you’d look for, and there’s nothing spectacular there.

Now, flip over to RA9-WAR, which focuses more on runs allowed, and you’ll see something very different. You’ll see the Reds rotation atop the leaderboard:

2014 Starting Rotations
Team RA9-WAR FDP-Wins WAR
Reds 16.8 7.8 9.0
Mariners 16.7 5.4 11.3
Nationals 16.2 1.4 15.2
Orioles 15.8 6.7 9.2
Dodgers 15.2 1.8 13.1

(Usually, I wouldn’t put much into 0.1 WAR, but it was somewhat different when I originally wrote this last night, before the Reds got hit hard and the Mariners shut down the Angels. The point, anyway, is to show how different they’re viewed from regular WAR.) I’ve also included FDP-Wins (Fielding-Dependent Wins) on this chart, and the math there is pretty simple. RA9-WAR, which accounts for runs allowed, minus WAR, which is trying to measure only what the pitcher controls, gets you FDP-Wins.

So perhaps the more appropriate term wouldn’t be “best rotation” so much as “best run-prevention unit,” including defense, and there’s more than one way to get to that. The Dodgers and Nationals don’t have a ton of defensive value, but their starting pitchers are so good that they mitigate the issue. The Orioles and Reds have decent rotations that look a lot better because of the fielders behind them. Unsurprisingly, these are the same two teams with the biggest positive difference between their ERA and FIP numbers.

It stands to reason that the Reds would rank pretty highly in the defensive metrics, and they do. They’re third in DRS, fourth in UZR/150 and fourth in our “Defense” stat, partly because they’ve been strong up the middle. Hamilton’s defense has been a big step up from Choo, and Zack Cozart has been so good at shortstop that he’s been an above-replacement player despite being the worst everyday hitter in the big leagues. Phillips has been solid, and so has Frazier. This has been a good defensive unit overall, and it’s making their pitchers look better.

But with apologies to the surprising year of Alfredo Simon and another quietly solid season from Mike Leake, the reason I started writing about this was to talk about Johnny Cueto, who has been outstanding this year after making only 11 starts last year around three trips to the disabled list with lat injuries. We really haven’t talked about Cueto enough, I don’t think. Since we’re full-on into “will Clayton Kershaw win the MVP” discussions, it’s safe to say that he’s got the NL Cy Young completely wrapped up, and rightfully so. That’s sucked a bit of the air out of the room, though, and that’s meant that Cueto’s outstanding season has gone by a little too quietly. (This article was written before the Cubs lit him up last night, so not great for me, but the point still stands.)

When healthy, Cueto has been a valuable pitcher for a while, and his 2014 looks a lot like his 2012, with nearly identical FIP, but he’s a different pitcher now. He walks a few more than he did in 2012, and he’s allowed more homers. He’s also struck out a ton more, and that’s in large part due to his changeup. Cueto’s change has been a good enough pitch that we actually wrote about it here more than two years ago, yet it’s still been improving. Just check out his K% on the change over the years:

2010 — 5.8%
2011 — 12.5%
2012 — 22.8%
2013 — 33.3%
2014 — 37.1%

You can say the same thing about his fastball, which has also been missing more bats — that all of baseball is striking out more isn’t an irrelevant fact here — but that’s a pretty consistent and outstanding rise in his change, which ranks among the top 5 in our pitch values, and looks like this when it’s making Anthony Rizzo look silly:

cueto_change

Without question, Cueto has been very good this year, leading the NL in innings pitched, and sitting, for the moment, at fourth in ERA. The traditional stats, where he’s going to end up with something like a 19-9 record and a 2.30 ERA, might even be enough to peel some first-place Cy votes off of Kershaw, considering how many more innings he’s thrown. He’ll almost certainly finish in the top three, probably alongside Adam Wainwright or maybe Madison Bumgarner.

But the credit that Cueto should get for his performance is a little more complicated than that, because there’s still that defense. I took all the starters who had thrown at least 100 innings this year, and sorted them by the difference between their WAR and RA9-WAR. Who do we find?

Cueto is on top, and that’s the difference between a good year (4 WAR) and a great one (7 WAR).

Name Team WAR RA9-WAR Difference
Johnny Cueto Reds 3.9 6.8 2.9
Miguel Gonzalez Orioles 0.6 3.2 2.6
Doug Fister Nationals 1.1 3.5 2.4
Chris Young Mariners 0.8 3.1 2.3
Alfredo Simon Reds 0.9 3.1 2.2
Shelby Miller Cardinals 0.2 2.2 2.0
Josh Beckett Dodgers 0.3 2.3 2.0
Cole Hamels Phillies 3.3 5.2 1.9
Edinson Volquez Pirates 0.3 2.2 1.9
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 4.0 5.8 1.8

Cueto, over the last two seasons, has the lowest BABIP in baseball. Good luck? Possibly? Quality pitches that lead to poor contact? Probably. Outstanding defense behind him? Almost certainly. However you want to weight those things, when the batter makes contact with the ball, it leads to outs more often for Cueto than it does for just about everyone else in baseball. That doesn’t have zero to do with him; it also can’t be realistically said it’s all due to him, either.

Just like for everything else in the world, context is important. You can’t compare a pitcher’s ERA to a similar pitcher from 15 years ago without noting that the run environment has changed dramatically — same with strikeouts. You can’t merely say that a pitcher earned his own win, and you also can’t put the entirety of run prevention on his shoulders either. When we talk about defense mattering, we usually mean it in the context of comparing the overall value of two players, and yes, I am referring to the Mike Trout / Miguel Cabrera MVP wars.

It matters a lot for pitchers, too. In the case of Johnny Cueto, he’s had a very good year, improving in some areas while declining slightly in some others. Thanks to the fabulous Cincinnati defense, the things he’s good at look even better. It hasn’t been enough to overcome a dreadful Cincinnati offense, but it has mattered a lot to ensure that this is just a lousy year for the Reds and not a disaster one. It’s also made Cueto look like even more of a star than he already is.

We hoped you liked reading Johnny Cueto, Good Pitcher Made To Look Even Better by Mike Petriello!

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Paul
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Paul

It’s interesting that you bring up when many people claim Kershaw alone is responsible for his ERA/FIP difference. I agree that he is able to maintain an ERA lower than his FIP, but not to the extent of last year. Despite the highest LD% of his career and the lowest IFFB% of his career, he also produced the lowest babip of his career. The 2013 Dodgers had the 5th best defense, including the infield defense of Juan Uribe (15 DSR), Hanley Ramirez (3 DRS), Adrian Gonzalez (13 DRS), Nick Punto (10 DRS), and Mark Ellis (11 DRS).

For both 2013 Kershaw and 2014 Cueto, I believe both can beat their FIP; that doesn’t mean we should always blindly believe in their RA9 when analyzing individual seasons.

Paul
Guest
Paul

I forgot to mention that I brought up the 2013 Dodgers’ infield defense specifically because Kershaw is such a groundball pitcher.

Dave
Guest
Dave

Kershaw wasn’t really an extreme GB pitcher last year – 46% GB rate, league average was 45.7%.

This year, he’s much more of a GB pitcher. He’s at 52.9%, to a league average of 46.1%. Of course, Hanley has reverted to being awful, and Ellis was replaced by a league-average Dee Gordon, so that hurts.