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Johnny Cueto, crafty righty

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Johnny Cueto is one of the most interesting pitchers in baseball, for several reasons. One, he was one of the most highly valued starting pitchers traded at the deadline, and is now pitching in the ALCS. Two, he's had a rough playoff career and a rough second half in 2015 as well, leading many to question his value in the 2015 postseason. And last, but not least, Cueto will soon be a free agent.

Johnny Cueto, Royals starter and free agent-to-be
Johnny Cueto, Royals starter and free agent-to-be
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A couple of years ago, when I first started my ongoing investigation into four-seam fastballs, Johnny Cueto and Matt Cain were the pitchers I started with. Both pitchers were much better than the advanced metrics suggested, year after year. Both featured good four-seam fastballs coupled with good changeups, with Cueto having the edge in the changeup department and Cain in the fastball department. What I wanted to find out is "what, exactly, do these pitchers use to defy sabermetricians and their predictions?" Before I tell you how I think these pitchers are so successful, let's look at some Johnny Cueto history:

2012 NLDS

When the San Francisco Giants won the NL West in 2012, and the Cincinnati Reds won the NL Central, the stage was set for Johnny Cueto to duel Matt Cain in an epic sabermetrics-defying pitching matchup for the ages. In the 2010 postseason, Cueto's first, Johnny had made a decent start for the Reds (5 IP, 1 ER) but was outdueled by Cole Hamels, while Matt Cain did not surrender an earned run in the Giants' run to the World Series championship. It was definitely a tough matchup for Cueto, no doubt, but two consecutive seasons with an ERA below three would have given Cueto some confidence that he was up to the task. But instead of putting up a glorious performance, Cueto's postseason would be the stuff of nightmares:

Just one inning into the postseason, Cueto had to leave the game with an injury initially thought to be back spasms and later diagnosed as a right oblique strain. The Cincinnati Reds would win the game, but had to burn starter Mat Latos to do so, meaning that fifth starter Mike Leake would have to start a game in place of the injured Johnny Cueto. Going into Cincinnati up 2-0, the Reds had three chances to finish the series at home and didn't win any of those three home games. The Giants won in the 10th inning in game three. Mike Leake pitched a terrible game four. Buster Posey hit a grand slam off Mat Latos in game five. Playoff baseball can be truly agonizing, and it's difficult to imagine just how frustrated Johnny Cueto must have felt.

2013 Wild Card game

After battling several injuries in the 2013 season, Johnny Cueto was pegged to start the 2013 NL Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. You may have seen what happened that game:

Johnny Cueto gave up 4 earned runs and did not strike anyone out in 3+ innings, while current Blue Jay Russell Martin hit two home runs in one game, helping the Pittsburg Pirates to a 6-2 win which took them to the NLDS for the first time in twenty years. Fun for the Pirates, not so much for Cueto.

2015

Fast forward to the 2015 season. Johnny Cueto is only 29 years old and in the last year of his contract, so a healthy and productive season would mean a large contract looming at the end. Off to a good start, Cueto's first half ERA- of 68 (meaning a 32% better adjusted ERA than the average pitcher) ranks 19th in MLB out of 114 starting pitchers, ahead of names like Clayton Kershaw and Chris Archer, and looks like it will get the Cincinnati Reds a solid trade haul at the deadline, which they got, and Cueto a chance at playoff redemption and a big free agent contract.

"Not so fast!" go the baseball gods, who do not want Johnny Cueto to have a predictable baseball career. After a trade to the Kansas City Royals, Cueto's "luck" turns on its head. Balls in play start falling for hits, flyballs leave the park and runners are no longer left stranded. With the Royals, Cueto has been striking out fewer hitters, leaving no room for positives except for a slightly lower walk rate. What happened to the Johnny Cueto who pitched like an ace for the Cincinnati Reds?

Let's do a quick check for red flags:

Hard% - Cueto's hard contact given up is higher than in 2014, but only slightly above his career numbers and little difference after the trade. Very much middle of the pack within MLB. And despite a significant drop from 2015, still upper third in Soft%.

Edge% - no problems here, 2015 Cueto is similar to 2014 best-season-of-his-career Cueto. Johnny Cueto keeps the ball on the edges. In 2015, only 9 pitchers out of 171 (1200 pitches minimum) of Cueto's peers hit the horizontal edges of the strikezone more than Cueto did. The number one, by the way, was Mark Buehrle.

Exit velocity - we only have data for 2015, so we can't compare Cueto to his former self. If we use the pitchf/x search for batted balls hit harder than 95 mph, we see that 30% of Cueto's batted balls allowed have been hit hard. I'm not sure how useful that is to know, but David Price was at 29.8% and Sonny Gray at 30.6%, while Felix Hernandez was at 30.8%. The personal graph for Cueto tells me the Baltimore Orioles hitters completely crushed Johnny Cueto, but there was otherwise no real difference after the trade to Kansas City.

Pitch selection - after getting traded to the Royals, Johnny Cueto seemingly started favouring his two-seamer over his four-seam fastball, while throwing fewer changeups and mixing in his slider and curveball (sixth best pitch) more. During a bad stretch of five consecutive bad games, Cueto went back to mostly four-seamers, more changeups and fewer sliders. Since Cueto pitched two bad games with this altered pitch selection, it's unlikely that this change in style was the key to Cueto's success, or lack thereof during his bad stretch.

Johnny Cueto's problems

After Johnny Cueto moved to the American League his off-speed pitches got hammered in both August and September. Cueto's changeup went from untouchable whiff-machine to a Jekyll & Hyde pitch that got hit hard but was also still hard to make contact with at the same time. Cueto's cutter has shown a less steep decline since 2012, but so far has been unimpressive in terms of whiffs in the American League. Cueto's slider has been awful for three seasons now and I don't know why exactly he still uses it:

So part of Cueto's problem might be fixed by throwing fewer sliders, which he's already doing. His changeup will likely be okay, it still gets whiffs and seems to be the same changeup it's always been in terms of velocity and movement. Cueto's cutter, however, is increasingly suffering from less horizontal movement, which is what a cutter is all about. It's tough to tell how Cueto's lack of effective breaking pitches will affect him going forward. His fastballs and changeup are still an impressive three-pitch combination and should be enough to make Cueto an above average starter even if the cutter's effectiveness does not improve.

Back to Matt Cain

Taking you back to the start of this article, I mentioned that Matt Cain and Johnny Cueto inspired me to look into four-seam fastballs. As of right now, I've included 65 right-handed pitchers in my "project" and I'm still adding more. Out of those 65, Matt Cain comes in 8th best in getting swings above the letters (though this is more of an approximation than derived from hard data), while Johnny Cueto comes in 24th, much more mediocre than Cain's elite rising fastball. Cueto, unlike Cain, supplements his four-seamer with a two-seamer. They are very similar, however, in not caring for the bottom third of the strikezone with their four-seamers. Matt Cain has the 4th lowest percentage of bottom-third four-seamers, Johnny Cueto is extremely close and is the 5th out of those 65 pitchers I've looked at so far.

Keeping the fastball high is one part of the formula to low-BABIP success for Cueto and Cain. Another is unpredictability. Neither pitcher will shy away from throwing offspeed pitches in fastball counts, with Cueto even pitching backwards; over the last few seasons Cueto has thrown more fastballs when ahead in the count than when falling behind. On top of that, Cueto's thrown five different pitches at least 10% of the time, all of them for strikes. This commitment to unpredictability could help explain the relatively pedestrian strikeout rates for both these pitchers. When you refuse to throw more offspeed pitches in strikeout situations, you will likely get fewer strikeouts than if you had the pitches with the higher whiff percentages.

Both Matt Cain and Johnny Cueto throw changeups that have a lot of vertical movement. They "drop off the table" so to speak. The difference is that Cueto's changeup is almost 10 mph slower than his fastball, while Cain's only has a six mile per hour differential. For both these pitchers, throwing the rising fastball high and the diving changeup low has meant big differences in batted ball angles. When hitters are pounding the changeups into the ground and popping the fastballs up into the air, it's easy to see how it might be difficult to find the middle ground (flyballs to the outfield, groundballs that get through the infield) for hitters trying to hit Matt Cain or Johnny Cueto.

The fascinating thing here is that, probably out of luxury, neither Cueto nor Cain has used the changeup as much as you'd expect given the high whiff-rates on the pitch. Compare Cueto's and Cain's 12-13% changeups to Cole Hamels with 27% or James Shields with 26% and you get the idea that a pitcher like Johnny Cueto does not think that a strikeout on a low changeup is necessarily always the best outcome to shoot for, when you can also try for a popup or flyball off a fastball. As long as he can keep the hitter guessing, Johnny Cueto is likely to be very successful. Despite averaging 93 mph on the fastball over his career, Johnny Cueto's pitching style is a lot more like Mark Buehrle's than you would think.