Fantasy Baseball

The Faceless Ace: Johnny Cueto

It feels like the last time we heard anything about Johnny Cueto was when he signed a multi-year multi-million dollar deal in San Francisco.  That statement certainly has some element of east-coast bias in it, but it is rather remarkable how little buzz there was and is about Cueto among fantasy baseball prognosticators and players alike.  In an environment where many pitchers were totally decimated by the longball including fellow 2016 free agent prize David Price, Johnny Cueto turned in one of the best (if not the best) pitching performance of his career.

After two years of experiencing a decline in his groundball rate, Cueto managed to boost it back over 50% in 2016.  In case you were unaware, balls that hit the ground cannot leave the yard.  Although never a big-time strikeout pitcher, Cueto brought his k-rate back over 8 per nine innings, after dipping to 7.4 K/9 in the prior year.

His LOB% also returned to his career levels at 78% after declining to 73% in 2015.  Cueto is not only  great at limiting hard contact and thus, keeping a WHIP that usually hovers between 1.10 and 1.15, but he is one of the best pitchers at keeping runners close.  Put another way, they do not reach very often against Cueto and when they do reach, it is extremely difficult for them to take a bag because of Cueto’s pick-off move.

Pre-draft last year, there were concerns that Cueto was either declining, hurt or both.  He effectively shut the door on the injury concerns just as emphatically as the performance concerns.  For the third consecutive season, Cueto posted an inning total, which exceeds 210 innings.

This does not even mention the fact that Cueto throws to one of the best pitchframers and gamecallers in baseball – Buster Posey, nor does it account for the fact that he is in the friendliest homer park for right-handed pitcher.  Collectively, it is a really strong package.

So why does Cueto get so little respect?  He was the 17th starting pitcher off the board in our recent Yahoo style mock draft.  He went behind pitchers with serious injury problems (Strasburg), pitchers coming off down years (Price) and pitchers who have not yet proven themselves to be elite (Martinez, Quintana).  There are other mocks that have Cueto a little closer to the top of heap, but still well behind the elite.

To address our mock draft first, I own up to the fact that I may have overlooked how good Cueto was last year and harbored some injury concern that based on the evidence at-hand is unwarranted.  With full workloads in three straight and four of five seasons, Cueto does not deserve any injury discount whatsoever.  I had him too low in my initial, personal rankings and when we post our rankings to site – I assure you that he will be much higher.

Now, of course, it takes a certain brilliant (and sick) mind to be doing fantasy baseball research this early in the process and I would use this a lesson of first impression.  It is completely possible that you will walk into the draft where Cueto is undervalued due to some nostalgic or lingering injury concerns from last year.  If that occurs, you should snatch him up at a discounted price.

The other issue with Cueto is that he is not sexy.  His best single-season K-rate is under a strikeout per inning.  Why would you take a guy, who only strikes out 8 per 9, when you can have a guy who strikes out 11 per 9?  The peripherals, which are understandably influenced by strikeouts, have outpaced him in each of the last six years.  Despite this consistency, owners might be a little cautious of peripheral-beaters following the total bottoming out of poster-children Matt Cain or Jordan Zimmermann last season.

However, there is a key difference between Cueto and the Cain-Zimmermann tandem, Cueto is a groundball pitcher, whereas Cain and Zimmermann were flyball pitchers.  Thus, Cueto is less likely to be affected by a surging homerun rate that ultimately caused Zimmermann’s and Cain’s stocks to plummet.  (BONUS: As I highlighted on the first podcast, Julio Teheran is a pitcher who does share the same traits as Cain and Zimmermann and if you hold Teheran in a dynasty league, then you might want to sell sooner than later).

See, Cueto cannot even get his own article without some divergence or attention going elsewhere.  It is the lack of flash that annually makes Cueto a value for his owners on draft day.  His groundball profile and lack susceptibility to the longball both due to skill and home park provide Cueto with an extremely safe floor to go with a relatively high – top ten – ceiling.  Do not underrate his skillset and do not wait too long to call his name on draft day.

My projection: 215 innings, 3.10 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 190Ks



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