Saturday, January 22, 2011

Johnny Cueto Isn't an Ace...Yet

The Cincinnati Reds have two of the most tantalizing (or frustrating) pitchers in baseball in Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez. Both have "star" written all over them but the results don't always turn out that way. Volquez was hurt most of last year and thus, will remain out of this discussion for now. But Cueto is a big part of the Cincinnati Reds' hopes to continue to be the team to beat in the NL Central.

The first thing that is easy to forget is that Johnny Cueto will only be 25 years old in February. He's already put in major service time for three straight years. It seems like yesterday when he came to his first Spring Training and blew batters away and forced himself into the rotation at the age of 21. But his rookie season didn't go as well as Spring Training and he went 9-14 with a 4.81 ERA. Yes, the strikeouts were there, but so were the 29 homers allowed in just 174 innings.

Cueto was pretty much the same in 2009 with a few less homers, a few less walks and also less strikeouts. But he became a solid cog in the Reds' division run in 2010 and finished the season at 12-7. His ERA came call the way down to 3.64. His strikeouts were again down, but he finished under three walks per nine innings for the first time in his career and below one homer per nine innings for the first time also.

Now he is entering his fourth full season and the Reds are in the midst of working out a multi-year contract for him. Will Cueto take further steps to stardom or is he not much better than what we've seen so far? There are some troubling peripherals.

One is that Cueto pitches much better in low leverage situations.  When a game is tight or the opponent tough, he tends to crumble. His record against the Brewers and Cardinals last year was terrible.  He was much better in the first half than he was in the second half. If Cueto is to become a big time pitcher, he needs to beat the good teams and win his share of close games. But the flip side is that the same could be said of Robinson Cano in 2009 when he couldn't deliver in a big situation to save himself. But Cano responded in 2010 in those situations. Perhaps Cueto will handled them better too in 2011.

But Cueto's number don't show anything else as drastic. His home/road splits are good as is his left/right splits. He just needs to win the close games. Need an example? Well, Cueto won only two games in eighteen starts when his team scored five runs or less. He needs to be able to win some of those games. Cueto also needs to get deeper into games as his starts averaged only 5.98 innings in 2010.

According to Fangraphs, the value of Cueto's fastball improved in 2010, accounting for a lot of his success. He also developed a cutter that was very effective. His best pitch seems to be a change up that he threw 10% of the time last year. His worst pitch is his slider, a pitch he throws 27% of the time. That's a lot of effort with a pitch that has so little value. He should throw less sliders and more change ups.

The jury is still out on Cueto. At 25 years of age, he still has plenty of time to become a superstar of ace caliber. And each season has shown improvement from the one before. But the bottom line for Cueto, and for the Reds, is that the young pitcher needs to be better in the clutch and he has to win the close games against tough competition.

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