Recently, San Francisco Giants $130 million dollar man, Johnny Cueto, had been reported to have blisters on his pitching hand. This had explained his recent struggles, which had been highlighted by a poor performance against the Chicago Cubs Tuesday night.
Johnny Cueto has been no stranger to rough stretches too. After the Kansas City Royals had invested a lot in him during a World Series run by giving up three nice pitching prospects, he scuffled along the final months of the season, going 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA.
This didn’t scare away the San Francisco Giants though, as they gave him elite money during the 2015 offseason. Cueto was more than fine in 2016.
But 2017 has been a different story. The worries are back. Sure, it might be just a simple blister. Don’t tell Rich Hill that.
The problems for Cueto this season have been all over the place. It’s everything. Velocity is slightly down. Spin rate is down. The Movement is whack. Look at how much more of the plate he is catching.
Here is a heat map of his pitches last year.
This isn’t particularly a good thing when you’re not spinning your pitches as well as you have. For example, in 2015 and 2016 combined, Cueto ranked in the top third of baseball in spin rate on fastballs. This year he ranks 353rd out of 475 pitchers with at least 25 fastballs thrown. But what really is suffering is his changeup. Last year, it spun at an RPM of 1522. This year it is at 1408. That is 146th out of 153 pitchers with at least 50 thrown changeups this year.
Another concerning thing is the movement on his stuff. Take a look at this visual from Brooks Baseball on the vertical movement of his pitches every month of his career.
Look at the end of this chart. The month of May has been disastrous. I want to highlight his changeup. He's usually had great 12-6 movement on it. This made hitters put some bad swings on the ball. Among the 88 pitchers with at least 50 changeups put in play last year, Cueto posted the 19th lowest launch angle at 3.2, the eighth highest mark in the majors. This led to Cueto producing a lot of ground balls on this pitch.
Cueto doesn’t have that same 12-6 movement this year, and his groundball rate is down by 38%. If Cueto pitched the 219.2 innings he did last year, he’d be on pace to only get 48 ground balls off his changeup.
Just take a look.
The GIF from 2016 shows that great changeup by Cueto getting Carlos Gonzalez to groundout to first to finish a complete game.
The one from 2017 lacks that same snap. It is left out over the plate for Jake Lamb to demolish. Speaking of getting demolished, that's happening to Cueto a lot more often this year.
So far this month, Cueto is posting a Value Hit percentage (high quality contact) of 8.5%. That is the second highest mark since 2015 when the stat became available. Cueto's worst month in 2016 was only 7.4%, although there seems to be a general upward trend over time when you factor out the peaks and valleys between each month.
VH% by Month
Last year, Cueto had an xSLG of .392. This year, though in a small sample size, he is holding a xSLG of .513.
For even further measure, here is a chart of the monthly average exit velocity for Cueto since the beginning of 2016.
Exit Velocity by Month
Since about the middle of last year, hitters have been making better contact off Cueto.
These issues can easily be attributed to Cueto’s reported blister this year. But also, let’s not forget that this may of been steadily happening since the middle/end of last year.
Could this suggest Cueto has an injury going on behind the scenes? Could/should this warrant a DL stint? I don’t know. Cueto says no, according to CSN Bay Area.
“That’s the type of efficient performance the Giants came to expect from Cueto last year. Cueto still expects it from himself, but his fingers aren’t cooperating. Asked if he would take a short stint on the DL to get right, Cueto said he can’t. He needs to keep pitching and have callouses form. Plus, any break without throwing would be a significant blow to a team trying desperately to stay within shouting distance of a playoff spot.
“Basically, it makes no sense whatsoever,” to take a break, Cueto said.”
I believe this shouldn’t be taken lightly.