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SF Giants: Five bold predictions for the 2021 season

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 19: Evan Longoria #10 of the San Francisco Giants bats during the game against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum on September 19, 2020 in Oakland, California. The Athletics defeated the Giants 6-0. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 19: Evan Longoria #10 of the San Francisco Giants bats during the game against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum on September 19, 2020 in Oakland, California. The Athletics defeated the Giants 6-0. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)
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SF Giants, Johnny Cueto
Johnny Cueto #47 of the SF Giants pitches against the San Diego Padres at Oracle Park on September 26, 2020. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

SF Giants: 5 bold predictions for the 2021 season
2. Johnny Cueto posts an ERA below 4.00

The Johnny Cueto of 2016 may be gone for good, but I still believe he can be a solid mid-rotation arm. Cueto has not posted an ERA below 5.00 since 2018, but I saw many positives from Cueto’s 2020 season that left me inclined to bet on a late-career renaissance. Given his recent struggles, it would be a tremendous boon for the team if he could amass 170 innings and record a 4.25 ERA this year, but I see him reaching a higher ceiling.

Last season, Cueto finished the season with a strikeout rate that eclipsed 20% for the first time since 2017. Aside from punchouts, though, the rest of his performance was quite forgettable. Cueto completed 63.1 innings across 12 starts and posted a 5.40 ERA. His peripherals suggested he had suffered from some bad luck, but his FIP (4.64), xFIP (4.78), and xERA (4.83) left much to be desired.

A case for a Cueto bounceback starts with his strand rate (a.k.a LOB%). In 2020, only 63.3% of runners that reached base against Cueto were stranded, easily the worst of his career. League-average LOB% usually hovers between 72%-75%, with few pitchers maintaining large deviations for more than a season. Had opposing runners scored at a rate equivalent to Cueto’s career strand rate (76.2%), Cueto would have allowed 10 fewer runs. Assuming nine of those runs were earned, Cueto’s ERA would have been 4.12.

Beyond the mound, many other things went wrong last year that were magnified by the pandemic-shortened season. Take his start against the Dodgers on August 8th. Cueto had completed five no-hit innings against the loaded Dodgers lineup on just 75 pitches. His pitch location looked as strong as it had all season, and he looked on pace to at least reach the seventh inning. Then, to lead-off the sixth inning, Enrique Hernandez hit what should have been a routine flyball to left field. However, outfielder Hunter Pence couldn’t see it through the lights at Dodger Stadium. Instead of one out and nobody on base, Hernandez ended up with a lead-off triple, and Cueto fell apart. The top of that sixth inning was responsible for a 0.52 increase in Cueto’s 2020 ERA by itself.

Another wrinkle to Cueto’s 2020 was his struggles with rookie catcher Joey Bart. Without Buster Posey, every Giants pitcher lost the opportunity to work with the best backstop in franchise history last season. Now that Posey has returned, Cueto should once again benefit from his elite game-calling and pitch-framing ability. It’s hard to quantify how much of an impact that will make, but it should be another reason Cueto is set up for improvement.

Finally, Cueto’s pitch usage data from last season left plenty of room for growth. Opposing hitters teed off against his four-seam fastball, hitting .353 with a .647 slugging percentage against the pitch. However, his curveball, changeup, and sinker all performed like above-average pitches. Cueto’s three most-used secondary offerings generated opposing wOBA below .300 last season, something he had not done since 2014. Yet, even while his secondaries were his best pitches, Cueto threw his fastball more than any other pitch. On Friday, in Cueto’s first start of the season, he threw his four-seamer just 25 times in105 pitches.

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