We've spent a lot of time worrying about Johnny Cueto's second half, and how it portends doom for the Giants and this contract, and how everything will be a disaster until 2020, when a ragged, recently demoted Cueto will make an emergency spot start against the Cardinals to help the Giants to the World Series. That's all very rational.
But he's been really good in the past. Really, really good. Before last season, when the question of Cueto's future contract came up, the best comp was probably Max Scherzer's $200+ million monstrosity. Before last year, Cueto was coming off a 2.25 ERA campaign in 243 freaking innings and a 163 ERA+ with 20 wins, which I shouldn't care about, but 20 wins! So it's probably unfair to focus on the second half, exclusively.
It's a better idea to look up his best start by Game Score and watch him at his best. It's not like you're doing anything else. There's no baseball, it's cold, and everything is awful. Watch these starts and get excited. We'll check back in March after his first poor Cactus League start and freak out together.
I wasn't wild about the idea of pulling up Cueto's very best career game and saying, "SEE? SEE HOW GOOD HE CAN BE?" ... until I found out that that start was from last July. Which wasn't very long ago at all.
Let us explore. First the pitch breakdown:
Four-seam fastball: 29%
The fastball averaged 93.7 mph, touching 95.6 mph at its peak. Of the 35 he threw, just four resulted in swings and misses, except what are we talking about when we talk about fastballs? It's easy to say that Bartolo Colon throws nothing but fastballs, except he's cutting, sinking, dipping, doodling, taking off, and adding when he needs to. All of his fastballs together are swing-and-miss pitches.
If you figure that a four-seamer, cutter, and sinker are all part of the same genre, Cueto was throwing hard stuff about two-thirds of the time. That's actually a little less than usual. So for all the talk about Cueto being a neo-Livan flurpballer, he still throws a lot of hard stuff.
That written, the sexiest pitch in that video is the changeup. It runs up to the plate in the mid-80s and dies when it's right. Cueto uses it as a strikeout pitch for good reason -- it's clearly his best pitch when he needs a swing and a miss. I'm a sucker for a good change, and Cueto's pairs his well with a three-headed fastball approach.
Unlike Jeff Samardzija, who showed up to Chicago and was asked to change his approach, Cueto was basically the same pitcher in Kansas City, at least when it came to pitch selection. He wasn't the same pitcher when it came to pitch location, though. Here are the laser grades for his brilliant World Series complete game:
Very good! But there were hittable pitches. Very, very hittable pitches, and the reason I remembered to look up the Inside Edge report is because I was thinking Cueto was sure getting away with a lot at the time. Which he was. So while the last we saw of Johnny O. Cueto was a transcendent World Series experience, there might have been some luck mixed in.
Still, it's a reminder of what velocity, skullduggery, movement, and derring-do can do to an opposing lineup.
And that's the Cueto the Giants can deal with. AT&T Park will help fill the gaps if Cueto makes the occasional mistake, but if the velocity, skullduggery, movement, and derring-do are roughly the same, he'll fit in quite well.
The other thing from that start against the Nationals worth noting is how it ended, which was with a nifty play from Cueto. He can field. I don't know if he can perform the most difficult challenge humanity has ever encountered -- throwing to second base on a comebacker to the mound -- but he's one of the better fielding pitchers in baseball. Eno Sarris has a great look at how that adds to Cueto's value, and how his historically low BABIP doesn't have to be all luck.
None of this is to suggest that the Giants made a prescient move, or that Cueto is guaranteed to succeed. But a smart bunch of folks made the decision to commit a tremendous amount of resources toward one player. They used video evidence to support their case. Up there are snippets of that evidence, and the stats behind the video suggest that Cueto isn't merely a junkballer. He's a hard thrower with the ability to go soft when he needs to.
So take those Zito comparisons and smoke them. I mean, not literally, what are you doing, please don't smoke those, ugh. Great, now you're pantsless and singing Jack Johnson songs, just great. But watching Cueto dominate in July is helping me accept the size of the contract. The Giants need a fantastic pitcher for the next two years, preferably the next three. David Price had a good shot of being that pitcher. Zack Greinke did, too. I might have been too dismissive of Cueto's chances to do the same.
He just might be a talented pitcher.