Back in the day, Johnny Cueto was among the best arms in baseball during his time with the Cincinnati Reds and the start of his tenure with the San Francisco Giants. Now, turning 36-years-old in a couple of months, Cueto hits an uncertain free agent market with a number of question marks surrounding both his arm and his health.
Let’s address the concerns with his health first. Since 2017, Cueto has thrown just 394.1 innings across 72 games, thanks, in part, to the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2018 that limited him to just 16 innings pitched in 2019. His numbers in 2020 were of course down due to the COVID-shortened season, but he was again limited to just 114.2 innings in 2021 due to a number of injuries that landed him on the IL a few times, including a lat strain, right flexor strain and an elbow strain. At 36 years of age and coming off multiple shortened seasons, it’s hard to believe that you’re going to get much more out of his arm.
And now for his recent performance. When he was on the mound in 2021, he was still decently effective for an end-of-the-rotation piece. In 114.2 innings pitched, he posted a strikeout rate of 20 percent, a walk rate of 6.1 percent (his lowest since 2018), an ERA of 4.08 (his lowest since 2018), and a 4.05 FIP (his lowest since 2016). He also posted a very solid 74.3 percent left-on-base rate. He was good for 1.5 fWAR. That’s really not bad for a fifth starter.
There are a couple concerning trends, though, and the first one is his groundball rate. In 2021, his groundball percentage was 38.1 percent, the lowest mark of his career and a far cry from his 44.5 percent career mark, while his line drive rate jumped to 25.6 percent (compared to his 20.9 percent career mark). This could be an issue for a guy who averages just 91.8 mph on his fastball, were he to suddenly pitch in a hitter-friendly park like Yankee Stadium. This hesitancy can also be seen in the fact that, were he pitching in Yankee Stadium rather than Oracle Park last season, his home runs would have been expected to jump from just 14 to 22.
The second concerning trend has to do with his hard hit percentage. Prior to 2021, Cueto had posted a career hard hit percentage mark of 32.7 percent. This past season, however, this percentage uncharacteristically jumped to 38 percent, by far the highest mark of his career. While some of this could be chalked up to injuries sapping the effectiveness of his stuff, I don’t think it can explain all of it.
Finally, Cueto’s run value by pitch type chart is also quite concerning.
While Cueto’s four-Seamer saw a return to a 2017-level of excellence, likely thanks to a noticeable spike in both usage and whiff percentage last year, his secondary stuff, including a once-solid changeup, has become exceptionally ineffective, despite Cueto mixing his pitches at a very healthy rate. As the below chart explains, this is likely due to the fact that Cueto left far too many of these pitches in the zone:
The truth of the matter is that Johnny Cueto is no longer the pitcher he once was. Thanks in part to age and injury, he’s lost the dynamic stuff that he once possessed that made him a legitimate ace for quite a few years. As a back-of-the-rotation guy, though, Cueto might not be the worst option on the market for most teams, especially considering that he will likely sign a one-year, incentive-laden contract. For the Yankees, however, I simply don’t see how his stuff would play in Yankee Stadium, and I’m inclined to believe they could do better.
With that being said, should the Yankees choose to take a gamble and sign Cueto to a small, incentive-laden deal, at least his hilarious rocking chair delivery would pair well with Nasty Nestor’s funky mechanics in terms of pure entertainment value. That has to be worth something, right?