Johnny Cueto came into this Giants starting rotation last season as a question mark. Would we see the Cueto from his dominating days in Cincinnati, or the shell of himself we saw in Kansas City? To say the least, Johnny Cueto has been nothing short of spectacular this season. He has earned every nickel of that first year salary, and then some…
I remember sitting at a Wingstop in California with 3 other buddies during my winter break from school. We were arguing over some fantasy football discussion when we received an ESPN update update: “Giants reportedly have six-year deal with Johnny Cueto“. The three Giants fans at the table, including myself, starting yelling and high-fiving each other, screaming out language that I can’t repeat on here. We knew we had just found our true number 2 pitcher, our co-ace, and we knew that the even-year magic was alive and well.
Johnny Cueto signed a 6-year deal worth $130 million dollars, along with a $5 million dollar signing bonus, with the San Francisco Giants on December 14th, 2015. The contract also included a team option for a possible 7th seventh season. Cueto is set to earn $15 million dollars this season, whereas every following season, he will earn $21 million dollars. This may seem like a lot of money to be shelling out, but when compared to Matt Cain’s $21 million per season contract he signed in 2012, it seems much more like a bargain price for a quality pitcher. Cueto was an ace, but was signed for slightly cheaper than an ace, arguably due to a poor second-half of his 2015 campaign with the Royals.
The Johnny Cueto signing came just about 2 weeks after the signing of Jeff Samardzija. In my opinion, this was a strange time for the Giants fanbase. The general fanbase felt disgruntled after missing out on Zack Greinke sweepstakes, only to “settle” for the Shark, Jeff Samardzija. Not to mention the fact that it looked more and more unlikely that the team was bringing back Mike Leake, whom many expected to be a top priority for the Giants. The organization seemed to be taking a big leap of faith on Samardzija to bounce back, after a terrible previous season, to be our number 2 pitcher. That was until Bobby Evans worked some Giants magic and struck a deal with Cueto. This isn’t to say the move came without speculation, as many questioned whether the Giants were getting the dominant Cincinnati Reds version of Cueto, or the lackluster Kansas City version of Cueto.
Safe to say, we got something better than we could have ever imagined.
To say Cueto has been dominant would undersell his 2016 campaign. Cueto has been pitching out of his mind and could make an argument for the best pitcher in the rotation at times. Cueto is currently sitting on a 2.47 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. Cueto is walking a career low 1.6 batters per innings which has caused his strikeout-to-walk ratio to jump to 4.8. Just to provide some context, Cueto has never posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio higher than 4 in his entire career. Not to mention, Cueto leads the National League in wins with a 13-1 record. That’s pretty damn good. This season also notched Cueto his second All-Star appearance that he has a legitimate chance to start in due to Clayton Kershaw’s injury and Jake Arrieta’s recent slump.
Based off of ZiPS end of season projections, Cueto is predicted to go 21-5 over 232 IP. These stats also predict that Cueto will finish the season with a 2.60 ERA and a WHIP of 1.03. On top of all that, he is expected to strikeout 202 batters. This is all merely a computer predicting results, and we all know anything can happen in baseball. However, if Cueto reached those numbers, he may very place himself into the discussion for the NL Cy Young discussion, depending on how long Kershaw’s injury lasts and if Jake Arrieta is able to get out of his current slump anytime soon.
Now, what has caused this massive spike in improvement for Cueto? It’s actually based on a simple concept: divide and conquer. According to Brooks Baseball graphs, Cueto has been more diverse in his pitch usage than ever before. Through this point in the season, Cueto has doubled the amount of sliders thrown, as well as a substantial amount more of sinkers and curves. But the pitches that have truly redefined his game has been his slider and his changeup. Somehow, Cueto found a way to give his slider more movement, which has made it a substantially more effective pitch. The pitch now relies on more of a 12-6 movement than compared to most other sliders, making it all the more effective. As for the changeup, the pitch is being swung-on and missed nearly 40 percent of the time that it is thrown this season. When it isn’t getting whiffed on by other batters, the ball is put in play only about 30 percent of the time that it is thrown, and 60 percent of those balls-in-play result in ground balls. This fits in quite nicely with Cueto’s game, for when he’s not striking players out, he’s relying on a heavy dosage of ground balls to get him through a game. Plus, the vertical drop of his changeup is just stupid. Don’t believe me? Just watch this video. Even Ryan Braun looked foolish trying to hit it, and he would admit it too.
Plus, it helps having another lively personality in the locker room. Cueto’s playful and upbeat personality fits in perfectly with all the other Giants in the room. When Cueto isn’t dancing on the field, you can catch him in the dugout blowing monstrous bubbles that even makes Willy Wonka jealous.
To put it simply, Cueto has been everything that the Giants staff and fanbase could have hoped and dreamed for, and then some. Along with Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija, Cueto is part of possibly the best trio of starting pitchers in the MLB. Cueto has helped propel the Giants to the best record in the MLB and has put the San Francisco Giants in firm control of the National League West heading into the All-Star break. Cueto picked a great time to have the best season of his career, as the even-year magic train continues to build steam behind Cueto and his incredible arm.