Johnny Cueto has always had a good arm, one that excites scouts and fans alike, but he’s always had a big question mark surrounding his ability to stay healthy. He didn’t answer that concern in 2011 as he once again missed a bunch of starts due to injury, but he also did some rather interesting things when he was on the hill that deserve exploring.
NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw led the NL with a 2.28 ERA, just slightly ahead of the 2.31 mark posted by Cueto. However, Johnny threw only 156 innings this season before he was shut down with a strained lat (you need to toss 162 innings to be eligible to win the ERA title). This marked the fourth straight season that Cueto failed to throw 185 innings, but it was also the first time that he failed to last at least 171.1 frames. Do four years of work at this level prove that Cueto will never be a 200 inning a season guy? Of course not, but it’s also a clear cut warning that when you drat Cueto you should be setting your expectations at a 175 inning pitched season and nothing more.
So how did he post such a fantastic ERA that was more than a run an a half below his career mark of 3.83? That’s a great question. Here are a few possible explanations.
(1) He was lucky as all get out. His xFIP shows that his ERA should have been 3.90, just slightly off the 4.09 mark he posted in 2010 when his ERA was 3.64. Some further ammo for this argument is that his line drive rate was pretty darn low at 16.2 percent, 2.5 points below his career rate. Cueto also posted a BABIP of .249, another very low total. Given that his BABIP the first three years of his career was between .290 and .298 you have to be very concerned that he will be able to replicate that .249 mark from 2011.
(2) He became a new pitcher, and in so doing he was able to do things he had never done before. This isn’t a small point either. When I say he changed how he pitched we are talking about a radical shift.
Cueto has seen his K/9 rate go down for 3-straight years: 8.17, 6.93, 6.69 and 6.00. In the process he has gone from an impressive power arm to one that is more than a batter below the league average in K/9. That’s an awful trend, both in the real world and the fantasy game.
Cueto has offset some of the loss of strikeouts by walking fewer batters. He hasn’t seen his BB/9 go down 3-straight years, but it’s awful close: 3.52, 3.20, 2.71 and 2.71.
Still, despite the improvement in the free passes, because of the loss of punchouts, his 2.21 K/BB mark in 2011 was below the league average of 2.30 and below his career rate of 2.29.
Given all that, you’re probably still asking yourself, ‘but Ray, how did he have so much success given what appears to be some poor trends?’ Remember when I said he basically reinvented himself on the hill? I wasn’t kidding. No longer a dominating arm, Cueto has become a ground ball master. After posting a ground ball rate below 42 percent in each of his first three seasons, that number exploded in 2011 climbing all the way to 53.7 percent. If he had thrown six more innings, enough to qualify for the ERA title, that ground ball rate would have been the 11th best mark in baseball. Think about that. He went from being a slightly below average ground ball hurler through three seasons to being an elite ground ball arm over night. That just doesn’t happen. IF, and it’s a huge if, he can keep the ground ball rate over 50 percent he won’t need to strike out eight guys per nine innings to have success. IF he can also keep the ball out of the air, perhaps he can replicate that 0.46 HR/9 mark that he posted in 2011 which was less than half his career rate.
So in Cueto you have a slightly unreliable arm who always seems to come down with an injury at some point. You also have a pitcher who has drastically changed him pitching style going from being Jake Peavy to Derek Lowe seemingly over night. If Cueto can replicate the ground ball rate from last season he’ll have a chance at a solid follow up to his 2011 effort, but even then it would be surprising if he was able to keep his ERA within a run of the 2.31 mark he posted last season.
By Ray Flowers