There is no doubt that 2011 was a disappointing campaign for the Cincinnati Reds. After the team won its first division title since 1995, it was swept out of the playoffs by Roy Halladay and the Phillies. Going into 2011, the team's expectations were sky high as they looked to defend their title against the Cardinals and the upstart Milwaukee Brewers. In the end, the Reds finished as a sub-.500 team for the 10th time in 11 years. However, one player broke out and had a stellar year after coming back late in the season from an injury: RHP Johnny Cueto. Here is a look at what Cueto did in 2011 from an end-results standpoint:
156 IP/ 169 ERA+/ 1.090 WHIP/ 2.21 K/BB
This campaign was certainly an unexpected season from Cueto, especially since the next highest ERA+ he posted in any individual season was 112 (and he had only ever been over 100 one time). Cueto's limited time didn't get him any attention for the Cy Young voting (deservedly so), but he definitely was a standout for the Reds in 2011. However, how important is the season if he's got little chance of repeating it? Well, it's not worth much of anything, and Cueto makes this list as a bust candidate for good reason.
Don't let that 2.31 ERA from 2011 fool you about Cueto (nate, looking at you). He did very little as a pitcher to see the jump that he did. Let's look at Cueto's last three seasons and his career averages to get a good idea as to what he's done:
2009: 6.93 K/ 3.20 BB/ 1.26 HR/ .291 BABIP/ 41.6% GB/ 11.2% HRFB
2010: 6.69 K/ 2.71 BB/ 0.92 HR/ .290 BABIP/ 41.7% GB/ 8.6% HRFB
2011: 6.00 K/ 2.71 BB/ 0.46 HR/ .249 BABIP/ 53.7% GB/ 5.8% HRFB
Total: 6.97 K/ 3.04 BB/ 1.05 HR/ .283 BABIP/ 43.5% GB/ 10.2% HRFB
There are a few things that should stand out here. Cueto, who will be 26 at the start of next year, is sacrificing strikeouts for a very limited gain in control. However, he's doing one thing right: he increased his GB rate by 12%, which is an astronomical jump. As a pitcher, getting more ground balls is a great thing, but sacrificing strikeouts is the last thing you want to do when you are going into your prime. Along with the strikeouts, it can be seen that Cueto saw a 41 point drop in BABIP and a career low in HR/FB ratio. Those things are very likely not sustainable, because HR/FB ratio shouldn't jump around too much if a pitcher is pitching in the same park. Cueto's 2011 ERA is the result of the mega drop in BABIP and the drop in HR/FB ratio. The ground balls help him a bunch as far as progression, but one random year of increase is a little suspicious. Let's look at his other rates over the past few years to see where he's going in terms of them:
2009: 4.51 xFIP/ 4.78 tERA/ 4.35 SIERA
2010: 4.09 xFIP/ 4.31 tERA/ 4.12 SIERA
2011: 3.90 xFIP/ 3.55 tERA/ 3.93 SIERA
Total: 4.21 xFIP/ 4.52 tERA/ 4.16 SIERA
Is Cueto trending in the right direction? Yes, he's come a long way from 2009. However, he hasn't made changes in his peripherals that dictate he should be any better than the average pitcher. Last year he was incredibly fortunate to get the ERA he had, and it is rather astonishing that he was able to sustain it over 156 innings pitched. However, rather than be closed-minded and just assume that everything was luck based, let's look at Cueto's individual pitch progression to see if there's anything there that can help us out:
2009: -2.6 wFB/ -0.2 wSL/ 0.0 wCT/ -3.7 wCH
2010: -2.6 wFB/ -3.9 wSL/ 6.6 wCT/ 3.0 wCH
2011: 13.3 wFB/ 6.4 wSL/ -1.1 wCT/ 2.3 wCH
Well, there are three things to take away from this:
1) Cueto's fastball was suddenly magical after being terrible for 3 straight years. This doesn't make much sense, as he threw it roughly the same amount of the time at virtually the same velocity (slightly faster than 2010). His control didn't get any better and his strikeouts went down, so the win value in this pitch is very likely a fluke result.
2) Same thing happened with the slider that happened with the fastball. Sudden magic. However, this one could be better explained: Cueto threw his slider almost 9% less than in the previous year, and he took a full MPH off of it. He likely had increased control of the pitch and used it to get ground balls low in the zone.
3) Cueto showed consistency in his change up. Being able to throw this pitch effectively increases GB rates when the other pitches in the arsenal are being thrown effectively.
So obviously not everything in Cueto's 2011 season was a fluke. Some of it was indeed based in skill. However, there was a lot of fortune involved in what Cueto did. The increase in GB% is great, but the drop in strikeouts is not great. This is why Cueto's 2012 will be a major disappointment compared to his 2011.
Real Life Value to the Reds
As mentioned before, Cueto was one of the lone bright spots on a disappointing Reds club in 2011. His breakout season helped the Reds by getting 4.3 rWAR, which is better to use for showing end results than fWAR is. A 2.31 ERA over 156 innings is extremely valuable to the team. Even though his independent rates are certainly weaker than his end results, it's not like Cueto is a terrible pitcher. His IP total helps him accrue above average value, as he's been worth about 2.8 fWAR each of the past two years. However, the decrease in strikeout rate increases the overall number of balls put into play, which creates more opportunity for hits and, more importantly, home runs. A 5.8% HR/FB ratio while playing in the Great American Small Park is lucky to say the least, and an increase in that total along with normalization of BABIP to around .280 should assist in Cueto's raw ERA jumping back to where it should be. With that, here's what I am going to expect from Cueto in 2012:
6.30 K/ 2.71 BB/ 0.99 HR/ .282 BABIP/ 43% GB/ 9.4 HRFB
3.99 xFIP/ 3.85 tERA/ 4.02 SIERA/ 2.2 fWAR
Thankfully for the Reds, Cueto is no longer the ace of the staff, so they can feel a bit more comfortable in their pitching staff. However, the above results would be a great disappointment to the Reds. Cueto is entering the best years of his career, so a drop in rates now would solidify him as an average pitcher, meaning he'll never reach the potential that some people (nate) think he will.
If you picked up Cueto off the waiver wire last year in your fantasy league, you probably made a big jump in your pitching categories. After May 7th, Cueto had the following 2011 fantasy numbers in a standard 5x5 league:
9 Wins/ 2.31 ERA/ 104 K/ 1.090 WHIP/ 0 Saves
That's a really good shot in the arm for a fantasy team that has had trouble with injuries on a pitching staff. In fact, it's probably a move that allowed some players to make the jump from 3rd to 1st in their fantasy leagues. However, forget about 2011. That was a thing of the past as the likelihood of Cueto going sub-3.00 in ERA with a WHIP below 1.275 again is pretty much zero. With the changes in his rates being less than stellar, let's look at what I expect from Cueto in 2012:
13 Wins/ 3.71 ERA/ 122 K/ 1.275 WHIP/ 0 Saves
These are decent numbers, but there are a lot of starters that you can take in fantasy baseball that can get you this kind of season. Due to Cueto's breakout, he's very likely going to be targeted early by the average baseball fan. He put up really good numbers for the limited time he was active in the majors last year, and his raw ERA will excite some fantasy owners. However, Cueto had a .25 drop in K/BB ratio, dropped a bunch in strikeouts, and as noted before, that ERA won't stay where it is. What is my suggested draft strategy? Either pick him where he's slotted and trade him (if you know someone that values him and gives a negative reaction to you picking him in the draft) or just completely avoid him until late in the draft if you really, really need pitching and have avoided taking it the entire draft.
Cueto's likely never touching his 2011 again, which is why I label him as a bust for 2012.