The Giants Land Johnny Cueto, Beater of Peripherals

The Giants have signed Johnny Cueto to a six-year deal, with an opt-out clause after two years. The opt-out makes valuing these deals tougher than usual, but six years and \$130 million seems like a lot for a guy that has a league-average career strikeout rate and a checkered injury history. And the opt-out favors the player, so those don’t make it look any better for the team.

That’s the negativity. You can still be excited about this deal, but it’s going to take a more nuanced look at the pitcher. You’ll have to look past some basic metrics.

If you add up the strikeouts, the walks, and the home runs, Johnny Cueto has been the 42nd-best starting pitcher in baseball since 2010. That’s why he’s projected to be a three-win pitcher next year, and that’s why the calculator doesn’t love this deal. Those wins are based on FIP, and FIP is based on his strikeouts, walks, and home runs.

Johnny Cueto’s Contract Estimate — 6 yr / \$91.4 M
 Year Age WAR \$/WAR Est. Value 2016 30 3.0 \$8.0 M \$24.0 M 2017 31 2.5 \$8.4 M \$21.0 M 2018 32 2.0 \$8.8 M \$17.6 M 2019 33 1.5 \$9.3 M \$13.9 M 2020 34 1.0 \$9.7 M \$9.7 M 2021 35 0.5 \$10.2 M \$5.1 M Totals 10.5 \$91.4 M
Assumptions
Value: \$8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

If you look instead by ERA since 2010, Cueto has been the fifth-best pitcher in that time frame. If you gave him credit for all of that, you’d pay him differently. Let’s do a MARCEL (simple projection) using his RA/9 WAR, or his wins based on all runs allowed. You get 4.8, and the calculator makes the deal look sexy.

Johnny Cueto’s Contract Estimate — 6 yr / \$189.3 M
 Year Age WAR \$/WAR Est. Value 2016 30 4.8 \$8.0 M \$38.4 M 2017 31 4.3 \$8.4 M \$36.1 M 2018 32 3.8 \$8.8 M \$33.5 M 2019 33 3.3 \$9.3 M \$30.6 M 2020 34 2.8 \$9.7 M \$27.2 M 2021 35 2.3 \$10.2 M \$23.5 M Totals 21.3 \$189.3 M
Assumptions
Value: \$8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

The truth is obviously in between, but there are some reasons to think that Cueto has skills that could beat FIP.

The league-wide batting average on balls in play in two-strike counts is .281, against nearly .300 across all counts. Since 2011, Cueto is top-25 in getting to two strike counts. He has good command to the edge of the strike zone, too, which is a hallmark of those that get fewer strikeouts than their two-strike rate predicts. You’l find him if you travel left from Michael Wacha.

With two strikes, the green circles — pitchers with below-average command to the edge of the strike zone — blow by hitters and get strikeouts with stuff. Cueto sits on the bottom part of the line, where pitchers with good command to the edges get fewer strikeouts than their two-strike rate predicts. He’s not Phil Hughes or Jake Peavy, but he’s sometimes picking that ‘soft contact’ over the strikeout.

Maybe those two-strike counts can help explain some of why Cueto’s career BABIP is .276. Another thing that helps explain it is defense — his own. Cueto is a top-ten defender at his position since 2011. Even if you don’t want to give him credit for all of the fielding behind him, you do want to give him credit for his own fielding.

There’s yet another way that Cueto lines up with some research on beating FIP. Jeff Zimmermann found in his recent piece on kwERA that pitchers with extreme ground ball and fly ball rates ‘break’ FIP. He found that 55% of the FIP-beaters in the past had ground-ball rates under 40% or over 55%. This mirrors the SIERA research that found that BABIP went down once your ground-ball rate passed 50%.

You might be looking at Cueto’s page right now and wondering what’s going on. His 45% ground-ball rate is right in the middle zone. But that ignores the fact that he has a pop-up inducing fastball and an elite changeup for ground balls (55% since 2010). His sinker is close to the threshold, too (54%). If you have a few pitches that average 55% and a few that average 30%, you might end up with an overall rate that looks average. But you might still have a few pitches that act like FIP-beaters on their own. Look for more from Jeff Zimmermann on this topic in the future.

Soft-hit rates for pitchers have terrible year-to-year correlations. Alex Chamberlain found a .25 year-to-year correlation for soft% among pitchers, which is worse than the year-to-year correlation on BABIP. But Cueto is a top-20 pitcher when it comes to inducing soft contact since 2010, and there’s some evidence that his other skills lead to soft contact. And once it’s in play, he should get full credit for the runs he saves with his own glove.

It’s still hard to say how far to take this. How much credit do we give Johnny Cueto for his balls in play? We’re all still trying to nail this down. It is interesting, however, that the contract Cueto got was halfway in between the two conditions we set (minus the value of the opt-out, which may be around \$10-15 million). So the Giants may not know exactly, but they did just pay him for about half of the value he’s shown on balls in play so far. So they can afford a little regression. Just not a ton.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.