He’s charismatic, fun-loving, and playful — and his mound antics have made him a favourite of fans way outside his adoptive home towns of Cincinnati, Kansas City and San Francisco. But last time out Johnny Cueto endured the worst season of his major league career, and the jury is still very much out on whether or not he’ll be able to recover in 2018.
A Recipe for Failure in 2017
First of all there were the durability issues. Having pitched 200+ innings in each of his previous five seasons, Cueto could only manage 147 in 2017. Despite starting the season well — becoming the first Giants pitcher to win his first three games in consecutive seasons since Rick Reuschel twenty years ago — Cueto then proceeded to bumble along in the clown car with the rest of the Giants organisation, and things went downhill at the all-star break. He complained of blisters on his throwing hand and went on the DL. Then, more worryingly, the former All-Star left a minor-league rehab game complaining of forearm tightness (which has often been a precursor to Tommy John surgery) and spent the next seven weeks on the sidelines.
Cueto walked batters more than at any time since breaking out, giving up 3.2 walks per 9-innings compared to his elite-level 1.8 walks per 9 just a year earlier. Putting runners on base at that rate is not terrible in itself, but married to the fact that Cueto couldn’t prevent hard contact on his pitches meant his value nosedived. His hard hit percentage rocketed from 27.2% in 2016 to 34.5% in 2017. And typically in his career, hard hits have gone hand-in-hand with a higher ERA.
So more hard hits, more men on base, and an increase in his fly ball rate. What happened? His home run rate went up. A lot. Cueto’s home run rate for the 2017 season doubled compared to the year before, and even in pitcher-friendly San Francisco, which sees the fewest home runs of all ballparks in the majors, he gave up home runs at a rate four times higher (1.12 HR/9 in 2017) than the season before (0.25 HR/9 in 2016).
Signs of Recovery?
Giants fans hope that Cueto’s terrible year can be brushed under the carpet with the rest of the awfulness of 2017, but what is the realistic outlook for the coming season?
He has made a commitment to staying, deciding against opting out of his contract in all likelihood because he didn’t fancy his chances of improving on the $86 million he’ll earn at the Giants for the next four years by touting his services on the free agent market. He has reported to spring training saying all the right things but not looking the part, and isn’t yet ready to join in mound sessions.
In fairness to Cueto, there were signs of recovery at the end of last year. He won four of the six starts he made after coming off the disabled list on September 1st, and was striking at a healthy rate of more than one batter per inning over that period. I’m yet to be convinced, however, that he is the same pitcher the Giants signed for just two years ago. Indeed the $130m/6yrs contract he got in 2016 is less than the Cubs will pay Yu Darvish over the same period of the new contract he signed earlier this week. Which guy looks the better value now? Steamer’s projections for 2018 have him reverting to somewhere in between his 2016 and 2017 selves, and that is a likely outcome, but whilst I’m hopeful he will return to something like his 2016 best, I’m very fearful he’ll be closer to his 2017 worst.