After a highly successful 2014 season in which he posted a 20-9 record, 2.25 ERA, and 242 strikeouts en route to a second-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award voting, 2015 was forecasted to be a big year in Johnny Cueto‘s career. He was slated to become a free agent after the season and would likely be in for the first big payday of his career. However, with the Cincinnati Reds not projected to contend in a stacked NL Central division, it was also predicted by many that Cueto would likely be dealt by the Reds sometime during the course of the season.
As was expected, Cueto pitched wonderfully in Cincinnati over the first half of the season in 2015, logging 130.2 innings over 19 starts to the tune of a 2.62 ERA and a K/BB rate over four. To the surprise of no one, Cueto was dealt to a contending team at the trade deadline, going to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for three pitching prospects, including 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan, who famously became the first player to pitch in the College and Major League World Series in the same year during the Royals’ 2014 postseason run.
Cueto’s time in Kansas City was a bit underwhelming to many Royals fans, who expected to be receiving a true ace to carry them back to the World Series. Instead, Cueto struggled in his 81.1 innings and 13 starts in Royal blue, posting an ERA of 4.76 and a K/BB rate of 3.29 (still decent, but down from his mark in the first half of the season). Cueto had his fair share of solid outings, but also had a stretch of five games in which he allowed six, six, four, five, and seven earned runs from August 21 to September 13.
In the postseason, Cueto was inconsistent but came up big when it mattered. His first start of the ALDS was mediocre at best, a six-inning, four-run start against Houston that was just good enough to give the Royals the chance to win. In Game 5 of the same series, however, Cueto fired an eight-inning, eight-strikeout, two-run performance. His only ALCS outing was a disaster, allowing eight runs (all earned) on six hits and four walks in just two innings. Cueto concluded his season, however, with a masterful performance as he threw a complete-game two-hitter, allowing just one run in Game 2 of the World Series.
Despite his inconsistency down the stretch during his first stint in the American League, Cueto was highly sought after this offseason, with the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, and St. Louis Cardinals among those who reportedly had interest in the Dominican righty, who would be entering his age-30 season in 2016. On December 14 — less than a week after the team had signed former Chicago White Sox righty Jeff Samardzija to a five-year, $90 million deal — Buster Olney of ESPN reported that the San Francisco Giants had inked Cueto to a six-year pact worth $125 million.
While many were excited for Cueto to join the rotation, which already included Samardzija and incumbent ace Madison Bumgarner, there were some who pointed to Cueto’s struggles in Kansas City as a sign of skill decline, injury, inability to pitch under pressure, or some other malady. So far in 2016, Cueto has silenced any whispers of doubt that lingered past the offseason.
Through his first ten starts in black and orange, Cueto has averaged more than seven innings per outing, racking up 75.2 innings total, including three complete games (two coming in his last two starts on May 18 and 23, both against the Padres). In addition to the workhorse reliability he has shown, Cueto has put up some pretty good numbers as well and currently sits on a 2.38 ERA and 2.19 FIP. His 5.58 K/BB rate so far is more than 1.5 points higher than his mark from 2015 (3.83), which was the best in his eight-year career at the time. Additionally, his 0.2 HR/9 leads all qualified NL starters.
Cueto has shown signs of improvement in two particularly notable areas: groundball rate and swinging strike rate. Last year, Cueto’s groundball rate was actually below the league average of 45.3 percent at 42.4 percent. This year, that number has bounced back up to 50.7 percent, well above league average. Cueto has also upped his overall swinging strike percentage from 9.9 percent last season to 10.5 percent this year. Here’s a look at how Cueto’s arsenal of pitches are performing this season compared to how they have performed over his first 8 major-league seasons:
The changeup has been arguably the most improved of his pitches so far, and he has taken advantage of that fact by throwing it more than he ever has in the recent past, up to nearly 20 percent of the time according to PITCHf/x. It has been better than ever because it’s moving more than ever now, as he has added over an inch of horizontal movement and a bit of sink to the pitch when compared to last year, according to Brooks Baseball.
Also interesting is that Cueto is throwing the changeup to righties at a much higher rate than he has in the past. Last season, when ahead in the count, he threw the pitch to righties nine percent of the time. With two strikes, that number increased to 19 percent. This season, Cueto has thrown the pitch 24 percent of the time when ahead in the count and 30 percent of the time with two strikes. This recipe has worked incredibly well, as righties are swinging and missing at more than 30 percent of Cueto’s changeups.
Cueto has also greatly improved his first-pitch-strike percentage, up to 71.3 percent from last year’s mark of 63.1 percent. This has allowed Cueto to use even more of his arsenal once he is ahead of hitters, something he has taken full advantage of. So far in 2016, Cueto has been throwing more sinkers and cutters as well as changeups and far fewer four-seamers, and it is a mix that has worked quite well for him so far.
Whether Johnny Cueto will be worth his nine-figure price tag over the six years of his contract will not be determined for quite some time. Whether Cueto will continue his excellent pace over the course of the full 2016 season is unlikely, if not doubtful. However, Cueto has done an excellent job of endearing himself to the Bay Area fan base immediately and helping to dispel any questions regarding his end to the 2015 season.
As it stands currently, Cueto has been an excellent addition to the Giants starting rotation and has been a big reason why they’ve opened themselves up a nice 4.5-game lead over the Dodgers in the NL West entering play on Wednesday. Hopefully for the Giants and Johnny, he can keep up his strong performance all year and play a key role in another Giants even-year playoff run.