Fantasy Baseball 2012: Is Johnny Cueto Going to Be a Breakout or Bust?

Eric StashinSenior Writer IMarch 28, 2012

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 14: Johnny Cueto #47 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch during the game against the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park on September 14, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Remember when Johnny Cueto burst onto the scene in 2008, carrying a perfect game into the sixth inning against the Diamondbacks on April 3 (he finished allowing 1 ER on 1 H and 0 BB, striking out 10, over 7.0 IP in a win). 

Obviously things haven’t been all rosy over the past four years, but he looked like a star in 2011:

9 Wins
156.0 Innings
2.31 ERA
1.09 WHIP
104 Strikeouts (6.00 K/9)
47 Walks (2.71 BB/9)
.249 BABIP

One of the biggest misconceptions with Cueto, brought about from that 2008 campaign, is that he is a big-time strikeout pitcher.  In the past three years he’s posted K/9 of 6.93, 6.69 and 6.00.  So, despite a 9.18 K/9 over his minor league career, can we say that he’s changed his game as he’s matured?

Maybe he’ll be able to rediscover that form and get back into the 7.00-7.50 K/9 range, but it is hard to imagine anything more than that at this point.  He showed flashes of that in ’11, with a 7.07 K/9 in 35.2 IP in June and an 8.80 K/9 in 30.2 IP in August.  However, he obviously needs to find consistency.

His ability to do that will go a long way in determining what Cueto’s final value will be for the upcoming season as there are a few things we know.

Fact No. 1: We know his BABIP is going to regress. 

That’s not a major statement, considering where he was at in ’11.  In his first three seasons he had posted marks between .290 and .298, so it’s a pretty good guess that he will return to that type of level. Of course, if he improves on his strikeout rate it isn’t going to matter.

Fact No. 2: Cueto is a solid control pitcher. 

Over his career he has posted a 3.04 BB/9, including back-to-back seasons of 2.71.  If doing it for that long wasn’t enough, he had posted a 2.18 BB/9 over his minor league career.

Couple that with a stronger strikeout rate and there is a lot to like.  Of course, you couple that with his new-found groundball ability in 2011 and he truly has the potential to excel.  Just look at the rates over his four major league seasons:

  • 2008: 38.6 percent
  • 2009: 41.6 percent
  • 2010: 41.7 percent
  • 2011: 53.7 percent

He worked a curveball into the mix (9.4 percent of the time), but is that really enough to cause such a dramatic change?  It’s hard to imagine, so either he has really matured and grown as a pitcher or the bottom is going to fall out this season.

It’s an impossible question to answer and one that we will have to just wait and see about.  Even if he regresses back to his prior rates, we are looking at a pitcher who can post an ERA between 3.50 and 3.75 as well as a sub-1.30 WHIP.  Those are good numbers, but a far cry from what he did in ’11.

There are two main questions that face Cueto and how you answer the potential strikeout rate and groundball rate will determine how you value him.  Regardless he should be a top-40 starter, though he has the potential for much more than that.  Just don’t over-draft him thinking that it is a given he replicates his 2011 success.

Make sure to check out all of our 2012 rankings: