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Johnny Cueto is changing how he attacks hitters

The headline is a pun, see.

San Francisco Giants  v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

In 2016, the Giants were regretting that Johnny Cueto had an opt-out clause in his contract. In 2017, they were regretting that he had an opt-in clause. The trick, see, was to get him pitching like he was in 2016.

I don’t know why a front office hasn’t hired me yet.

It’s possible that no one single player had as much variance between his best- and worst-case scenarios, and the good news is that Cueto is much closer to his best-case. He’s pitching brilliantly again, and the Giants are 3-1 in his starts so far. The samples are small and the season is young, but there wasn’t a four-game stretch all last season that featured this kind of vintage Cueto. He is shimmying and quick-pitching his way back into our hearts.

However, he’s not pitching like he was in 2016. Not quite. He’s changing up more often, and it’s working.

It’s tricky to parse through the pitch data, considering that FanGraphs calls his slutter a cutter in one section but a slider in another, but there isn’t a lot of ambiguity with the overall trend. He’s throwing fewer two- and four-seam fastballs, and he’s throwing more changeups. I’m not no mathamgicin or whatnot, but even I can see the trend on this chart from Brooks Baseball without any help:

I’m not quite sure what to make of the strange hiccup in March, 2011, considering he didn’t appear in a major league game that month, so I’m gonna ignore it. That means that Cueto is on pace to throw more changeups this month than in any other of his career.

He’s probably doing it because he’s getting more swings and misses than he ever has. When he throws his change and the batter swings, the batter has whiffed nearly 50 percent of the time this year. It’s historically been his whiffingest pitch, even in the seasons when he didn’t throw it as much, so it makes sense that he’s throwing it more. This is something of a trend in baseball; when a pitcher has one wildly successful pitch, he throws it until the hitters prove they’ve figured it out. Jeff Sullivan refers to it as “McCullersing” after Lance McCullers and his magic curveball. The Giants refer to it as “Aw, crap, not Patrick Corbin and his stupid slider again,” after Patrick Corbin and his stupid slider.

Here’s another Brooks Baseball graph. This one is whiffs per swing, and over the last three years, you can see that the changeup has separated from the rest of his pitches:

Oh, mystery outing in March, 2011, you must have been transcendent. But we don’t have time for you. We have time only for graphs on graphs on graphs! This is pure whiff percentage for every pitch, and tells the same story:

There’s only one problem with the changeup-rules-so-throw-it-more narrative: Cueto’s changeup was kind of a disaster last year. Even with the extra swings and misses, he was leaving far too many up, and he had two full months last year where the slugging percentage against his change was over 1.000. So it’s not like the Giants looked at the whiff percentage and said, “Yeah, do that more.” There had to be a fundamental change in how he deployed it. Or maybe he’s just executing the pitch better and with more consistency.

I’m sure this video will be gone soon, but until it is, it’s a fine testament to how well the pitch has worked all season:

In the interest of full disclosure, this idea for a story came to me when Bryan said, “Hey, you should write about Cueto’s changeup,” and I excitedly agreed. But then I googled around and found out that Kerry Crowley wrote this same article before Sunday’s start against the Angels, which means that Bryan was assigning this story to me as a way of discrediting me further and establishing a firmer grip on his power. Noted. I see how it is.

Anywho, we’re still in small-sample territory, of course. Cueto might find that his fastball is a little froggier than normal in his next start, and he might use it to greater effectiveness. It would take just one change-light start to bring his totals down substantially, and suddenly we wouldn’t be talking about how he’s throwing more changeups than he ever has. And he has exactly one start left this month, this could all change.

Also, I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that Cueto isn’t going to finish the season with an ERA under 0.50. There’s a slight chance — I mean, I suppose we have to acknowledge the possibility, at least — that Cueto will allow a home run this year. So this is similar to a post of, “So Austin Jackson is clearly the worst baseball player in the majors. In how many weeks will he retire?” Holllllld on there, sheriff. It’s still really early for everyone.

Still, while Cueto’s resurgence has a lot to do with an unsustainably low BABIP and HR%, there are a lot of signs that his changeup is helping him more than any other pitch. It’s not just a strikeout pitch, either; after getting Luis Valbuena into a two-strike count with the bases loaded and one out on Sunday, Cueto got the crucial double play with a changeup that broke out of the zone. Most hitters miss those changeups. Valbuena wishes he did.

It ended up being the second-most important event of the day after Evan Longoria’s homer, and it allowed the Giants to win. Cueto’s changeup has done that a lot this year.

Jeff Samardzija is back. Kinda.

Maybe that tall fella with the beard can come back soon.

But for all that’s gone wrong with the 2018 Giants so far, Johnny Cueto and his magic change-of-pace is something that’s gone right. The more we see of it, the better.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I think this article is better than Kerry’s, mainly because it’s longer.)

(FORMER EDITOR’S NOTE: Shut up. I’m on to you.)