Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Does Johnny Cueto Have the Pirates' Number?

It was, to date, the pinnacle of the Pirates' renaissance. October 1, 2013. National League Wild Card game. The Pirates' first postseason game since 1992, and the first ever at PNC Park. A raucous sellout blackout crowd. (Note to people outside of Pittsburgh: "Blackout" refers to everyone in the stands wearing black. It doesn't have anything to do with a power outage. That, unfortunately, happened to the Pirates' lineup, save Pedro Alvarez, in the Divisional Series against St. Louis.) The Bucs' Francisco Liriano vs. the Reds' Johnny Cueto. And it wasn't close. Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin hit home runs in the second inning. Cueto allowed nine baserunners and four runs before getting pulled in the fourth inning, chants of "CUE-TO" ringing throughout the ballpark. Liriano cruised and the Pirates were 6-2 victors. It was not only an embarrassing defeat for Cueto, who at one point dropped the ball while standing on the mound, it was also the last game for Reds manager Dusty Baker.

Since then, Cueto's faced the Pirates seven times, including yesterday's season opener. The results are pretty overwhelming: 1.53 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, five wins for Cueto, seven wins for Cincinnati. His two no-decisions were both games in which he left positioned to get the win (yesterday, leading 2-0 after seven; and last June 17, leading 3-2 after six) only to watch the Reds bullpen blow his lead in a game the Reds ultimately won. Has Cueto become the Pirates' kryptonite?

I don't think so, for two reasons. First, the Johnny Cueto the Pirates faced in the 2013 wild card game wasn't the typical Cueto. He started only eleven games all season that year in between two stints on the disabled list due to a strained lat muscle. Prior to the wild card game, Cueto had started only two games since the end of June, on September 16 and 23. He was still rusty, and it showed. By contrast, he's been healthy since, leading the league in innings pitched and batters faced.

Second, the Cueto the Pirates have faced since October 2013 is basically the same Cueto the rest of the league has faced. Look at this table:

ROW = Rest of world, i.e. everybody other than Pittsburgh.

Other than ERA, there's not a lot of difference, is there? He's allowed fewer walks against the Bucs, but also gotten fewer strikeouts. Otherwise, everything looks pretty much in line, except ERA. So what's going on with runs?

Well, here's another comparison:

RISP = Runners in scoring position

That pretty much tells the story. The Pirates' raw statistics--hits, walks, home runs, strikeouts--are similar to Cueto's other opponents. Their overall batting average is the same as the other hitters Cueto faces. But once they get players on base, the Bucs have been unable to bring them around to score. They're 2-for-27--two for twenty-seven!--with runners on second and/or third (with a bases-loaded walk and a run-scoring ground out added in).

Nobody hits well against Cueto, who was the runner-up to Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young Award last year. The Pirates, overall, hit on a par with Cueto's other opponents. Once they get runners in scoring position, though, their bats turn to ice. That's why Cueto's dominated them.

The silver lining is that batting with runners in scoring position, or the lack thereof, isn't a particularly replicable skill. In 2013, the St. Louis Cardinals famously led the league in batting with RISP, at .330. The Pirates were second-to-last, at .229. But last year, the two were neck-and-neck, as the Cardinals tumbled to sixth, at .254, and the Bucs rose to seventh, at .249. That sort of variation suggests that batting with runners in scoring position includes a fair amount of luck. So while it's never easy to score against Johnny Cueto, it doesn't need to be as hard as it's been for Pittsburgh over their last seven games against the Reds hurler. It's reasonable to expect improvement in 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment