Johnny Cueto made his long awaited debut in a Giants uniform on Wednesday. It ... didn't go well. There were shimmies and twists and quick pitches, but none of it worked. He gave up five runs and a dinger in 1⅓ innings, and now we have four days to look around nervously. It's spring training for looking around nervously, and we'll try some new things out. By April, we'll look around nervously as well as we ever have. That's how it works.
Just imagine if Cueto is bad, though. Just imagine.
You don't have to dig deep into the speculative fiction to get the general picture. The Giants have already signed a pitcher for millions and millions only to have him disappoint immediately. Barry Zito was a dud on Opening Day, 2007, and even though he topped out as "better than Todd Wellemeyer" in 2009 and 2010, he was never the ace he was paid to be. The Giants were 100-108 when Barry Zito appeared in a game. That is a very, very Zito fact.
So if Cueto is bad, you will hear comparisons to Zito. Over and over again. Which is horribly unfair to Cueto. I suppose it's unfair to Postseason Hero Barry Zito, too, but it's specifically unfair to Cueto and Bobby Evans. The Giants had no business signing Zito, whose strikeout rate and fastball were already down significantly from his Cy Young peak. His control and command were never strengths, and he was getting uncomfortably close to walking as many batters as he struck out.
Cueto had two bad months last year.
No, it's true! Cueto was excellent in July, fair in August, and awful in September. The awfulness bled over into two of his first three postseason starts, and he became a dicey enigma. That's how quickly perception can change, and it's why the Giants were able to pay him far less than what Greinke would have cost. It's also why a single spring start will make you look around nervously.
I'm trying out a new delivery for my nervous looks, you know. My eyes are in the best shape of their lives.
Focusing on Cueto's struggles is a great way to miss the hundreds and hundreds of excellent innings he'd thrown before that bad month, though. From 2011 through 2015, Cueto threw 889 innings with a 2.71 ERA. Even if you don't believe that he's one of the few pitchers who can fool FIP, his 3.41 FIP is well above average, especially considering that he pitched most of those innings in Cincinnati. If you're worried about Cueto, it should be because he's a pitcher, and those things break down. The Giants opened the hood and didn't see a problem, so that should calm us all a little.
It's not just the bad month that makes you nervous, though. It's the bad months combined with the knowledge that all pitchers will eventually crumble into ashen piles of disappointing. It'll happen to all of them, and you won't know when the tipping point was until you have the benefit of hindsight. If you're worried that Cueto's gone over that ravine, it's because you know he eventually will. You're a baseball fan. A smart, well-educated baseball fan. Look at how smart you are. And you've seen this happen before.
If Cueto follows that Zito path, where he shows up and gives the Giants nothing in the regular season for the life of his contract, it will hose the team this season. It'll hose them in the offseason. It'll hose them next season. Then it'll hose them in the next offseason. Then, well, you get it. You've lived it. It would be unfortunate because you know that the Giants won't follow the mistake with a big contract to another player to help the roster. This is probably it, at least for the next couple years, so it had better work. You remember how restricted the Giants were after the Zito contract. They won only two World Series in the seven seasons he was here. It was a mess.
Do you want optimism, then? I can give you optimism. ZiPS doesn't care about Cueto's bad month, at least not as much as we do. It's not looking at it much differently from a bad month in May, and it's treating it as a small data point in a larger set. Here's what the computer spit out this year: 207 innings, 2.87 ERA, 4 WAR. That would have fit right in with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain on the 2010 Giants. It would be more WAR than anyone on the 2012 or 2014 Giants accumulated, according to FanGraphs.
The computers are saying Cueto will have one of the best seasons the Giants have seen in their recent history of excellent pitching seasons. They're saying take yer Zito comparisons and cram 'em, but in binary.
That's about right. Your brain says "the very best pitchers have bad months." But there's a noisy voice in there, and it's screaming "HE'S OVER 30 AND BROKEN." The computers can calm you down, but you'll still look around nervously after every poor spring start. This is all because the Giants took a huge risk to chase after the huge reward. You can't reconcile the two until you actually watch him pitch.
I'm expecting good things. Not great things, necessarily, but good ones.
Johnny Cueto, 2016 projected
That'll do. That'll do just fine. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be in the corner, looking around nervously.