The Johnny Cueto experiment in Kansas City was largely a failed one, but since signing with the San Francisco Giants, he has returned to a level approaching ace status. He is one of three pitchers in baseball with three complete games under his belt, amassing a record of 8-1 and a respectable 3.21 ERA.
Much of his success is attributable to his stellar command and aptitude for producing ground balls. After a season in which Cueto ranked outside of the top 25 in most swinging strikes generated, he currently occupies the No. 17 spot on this year’s leaderboard. Cueto is also issuing a career-low 1.54 walks per nine innings pitched, the fourth-lowest walk rate in the league among starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title. And he’s doing it by both relying less on his hard stuff — which have decreased from 71.6 percent of his pitches last year to 64.6 this year—and simultaneously using his breaking balls more this year (18.1 percent this year compared to 12.9 percent last year, including his slider, which he’s using 16.4 percent of the time, the highest percentage in four years.) By divvying up his pitches, opposing batters are struggling to read what he’s throwing before it’s too late, evidenced by his elite ranking in swing-and-miss rate.
When it comes to ringing up batters, Cueto often dials up his changeup, which has been used significantly more this season (16.9 percent) than last. Batters are whiffing on 27.6 percent of his changeups this season, far and away the highest percentage of any pitch in his repertoire and any pitch thrown in any season of his career.
This is leading to an uptick in strikeouts per nine innings pitched—from 7.47 last season to 7.93 this year, the third-highest rate of his career.
More impressively, his command and strikeout prowess has been solid in high-intensity situations, or what Fangraphs attempts to quantify with its leverage index metrics. Cueto’s average leverage index for all game events, or pLI, is 1.12, which ranks seventh-highest among starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title. This is likely because Cueto ranks 61st in run support, so most of his pitches truly have the ability to swing the outcome of a game.
“He’s got great savvy out there with great stuff,” San Francisco Manager Bruce Bochy told the Associated Press last week. “He’s one of those guys who can turn it up a notch out there when he needs to.”
Thus far, the Cueto who threw the most egregious two-inning start in postseason history last year — one that Baseball-Reference’s 113-year-stretching database couldn’t find replicated — is long gone. Based on his pitching performance this season, Fangraphs estimates his production has been worth about $19.9 million; he signed with the Giants for six years, $130 million, with $15.8 million coming this year. With Cueto in the fold, the Giants jumped from 25th last season in starting pitcher Wins Above Replacement to eighth this year.
The Beluga-whale-befriending Dominican has the Giants outright leading the National League West Division by 4.5 games. San Francisco is projected to finish the season with a 92-70 record and its first division crown since 2012. With Cueto’s resurgent arm in Bochy’s rotation, the Giants are hurdling toward another playoff berth with a rotation fit for a championship-caliber franchise.