Fantasy baseball Pitching Report: Johnny Cueto's brilliant dominance

Tuesday May 20th, 2014

Johnny Cueto has already pitched three complete games this season -- two of which were shutouts.
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During a Cubs-Cardinals broadcast last week, Cubs' play-by-play announcer Len Kasper brought up an interesting fact. Of all the teams that have been in existence since 1967, the year in which the MLB started giving out Cy Young Awards to the best pitcher in both leagues, only one has never had a pitcher take home the hardware. Despite the best efforts of Jose Rijo, Tom Seaver and Mario Soto, the Reds have never boasted of a Cy Young winner. That streak just might end this year.

In modern-day Major League Baseball, it's a little hard to fathom what Cueto is doing this season. Through nine starts, he has thrown 72 innings. Before we even get to his statistics, let's just appreciate that for a second. He's averaging eight innings per start, and he already has three complete games, two of which were shutouts. The last pitcher with double-digit complete games in a season was James Shields for the Rays in 2011, but Cueto seems like he can get there this year.

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Cueto has allowed 10 runs in his 72 innings, which translates to a 1.25 ERA. He has given up 33 hits and fanned 76 batters while walking 18. That scant 0.71 WHIP is almost laughable at this point in the season. We use unhittable as a synonym for "very good" all the time, but Cueto has been as close to the literal definition as possible this year.

Here's a fun exercise: Let's try to identify Cueto's worst start this year. I guess it was when he allowed two runs on five hits and four walks in seven innings against the Rays. Now scroll through the game logs of 20 other starting pitchers selected at random, and see for how many that would rank as one of their three best starts this season. I'd set the over/under for that at 12.5.

Clayton Kershaw missed six weeks this season and Jose Fernandez is done for the year. Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke and Tim Hudson are all having great years, but none is doing as realistic a Bob Gibson impression as someone can do in 2014 the way Cueto is. It goes without saying that it's far too early to start etching anyone's name on a trophy, but it isn't too early to identify a favorite. Cueto has a great chance to give the Reds franchise, one that has existed since the very dawn of organized professional baseball, its first Cy Young Award winner.

Pitchers of the week

Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees -- Last week: 9 IP, 1 W, 8 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.44 WHIP

It's really not supposed to be this easy. Tanaka notched a complete game shutout against the Mets last week, allowing just four hits and striking out eight batters. In 58 innings in his rookie season, he is 6-0 with a 2.17 ERA, 2.78 FIP, 0.91 WHIP and 66 strikeouts. They can probably start etching his name on the AL Rookie of the Year trophy now.

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds -- 9 IP, 1 W, 8 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.56 WHIP

Cueto continued his otherworldly season last week, throwing his second complete game shutout in his first nine starts. This one came against the Padres, and he allowed three hits and two walks while striking out eight. He's up to 72 innings this season, and has a 1.25 ERA, 2.98 FIP 0.71 WHIP and 76 strikeouts.

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers -- 14 IP, 2 W, 6 K, 1.29 ERA, 0.86 WHIP

Porcello is quietly putting together a great season, and is up to 7-1 after wins over the Orioles and Red Sox last week. He held the Orioles to one run on five hits in six innings, then limited the Red Sox to a run on six hits in eight frames. He doesn't strike many people out, but he also doesn't walk anyone and keeps the ball in the ballpark. In 52 2/3 innings this year, he has issued just seven free passes and surrendered only four homers.

Pitchers of the weak

Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians -- 9 2/3 IP, 5 K, 11.17 ERA, 2.17 WHIP

Masterson got roughed up in both his outings last week, first allowing five runs on six hits and three walks to the Blue Jays. He took the ball against the A's over the weekend, surrendering seven runs on seven hits and five walks in 4 1/3 innings. Walks have been a major issue for him this season, as he has now allowed 28 to reach base via the free pass in 58 2/3 innings.

Jake Peavy, Boston Red Sox -- 10 1/3 IP, 3 K, 9.58 ERA, 2.13 WHIP

The Twins and Tigers knocked around Peavy last week, picking up a no-decision and a loss for his efforts. He gave up a total of 11 runs on 20 hits and two walks. The struggles bumped his ERA from 3.09 up to 4.33, and his FIP for the season is an ugly 5.15.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers -- 1 2/3 IP, 3 K, 37.80 ERA, 4.80 WHIP

Here's a name you don't expect to see on this list. Kershaw had the second-shortest outing of his career, going just 1 2/3 and allowing seven runs to the Diamondbacks on six hits and two walks. Just take it as proof that even the very best pitchers on the face of the earth are mortal.

While David Price's ERA isn't the greatest, he has plenty of other assets which benefit a fantasy team.
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Buy, sell or hold

Buy: David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Buying Price is much easier said than done. Despite his 4.28 ERA and 1.21 WHIP this season, his owner isn't likely to be quick to sell him. He is still, after all, David Price -- the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner. Beyond that, he's actually having an incredible season in other ways. He has 77 strikeouts against six walks in 69 1/3 innings. And no, that is not a typo -- Price has walked just six batters this year while fanning 77. He also has a .345 BABIP, which just doesn't hold up based on his batted-ball rates. Combine that with his strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his FIP is way down at 3.22. He has pitched much better than his surface stats suggest, and there is a chance that his owner could be looking to get out, especially after he gave up five earned runs in 6 2/3 innings to the Angels his last time out. Go check in with his owner to see if he's willing to listen.

Sell: Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers

It's hard to argue with Porcello's results this season. The righty is 7-1 with a 2.91 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 52 2/3 innings. The ground-ball heavy pitcher was routinely done in by a subpar infield defense in Detroit. With the Tigers upgrading their defense at three positions with one move -- trading Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, resulting in upgrades at first, second and third -- it stood to reason that Porcello would be one of the main beneficiaries.

While that would be a nice, neat narrative, the stats do not bear it out. Porcello's ground-ball rate this year is just 43.5 percent, which would be far and away the lowest rate of his career. Conversely, he leads the league with a 28.6-percent line-drive rate, but has miraculously posted a .266 BABIP. He is getting a ton of popouts, but that doesn't nearly counteract how many hard-hit balls he has allowed. You should be able to get a nice return for him right now, given his gaudy record and sterling rates, but there simply has to be some regression here eventually.

Hold: Drew Pomeranz, Oakland A's

The A's moved Pomeranz to their rotation two turns ago, and he has rewarded them with a pair of strong outings. He has yet to allow a run in 10 innings as a starter, giving up just five hits and striking out 13. His average fastball velocity is up to 92 mph from 91.3 last year, and he's getting a ton of mileage out of his new-look knuckle-curveball, as well. That pitch has a strong 12.8-percent swinging-strike rate, helping him compile 24 whiffs in 23 2/3 innings thus far. His spot in the rotation looks safe for now, and he should be owned in deeper mixed leagues. Those of you in 12-team mixers should have him on your radar, though he isn't a must-add in leagues of that size just yet.

Rookie pitcher spotlight

Yordano Ventura, SP, Kansas City Royals

It has been a while since we checked in on Ventura, and given the lack of quality rookie starting pitchers this year, it seems appropriate to cycle back to him. The hard-throwing righty keeps on shooting flames past opposing hitters' bats, racking up 53 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings this season. His last time out, he fanned nine Orioles in 6 1/3 innings, taking the loss despite allowing just two runs on seven hits and a walk. It's this last start I want to talk about.

Let's start at the 14-second mark, where Ventura blows a 98 mph heater past Chris Davis, then freezes Nelson Cruz with 96 on the black. Six of Ventura's nine strikeouts came with a fastball on strike three, and four of those were of the swinging variety. The bottom line is, usually, no matter how hard a pitcher throws, major leaguers can eventually catch up. That was not the case for the Orioles against Ventura. He was still running it up to 99 in the sixth inning, making Davis look foolish with a fastball that was essentially right down Central.

Now we'll jump ahead to one minute, six seconds. With a 1-2 count on Manny Machado, Ventura breaks out a filthy curveball, the kind that you can't really look for when a pitcher is throwing gas in the high-90s with regularity. Machado cuts at it harmlessly for strike three. Ventura quite simply had everything working.

I say everything because, as we can see from the next clip in the video, Ventura also has a nasty changeup. Adam Jones learned that, but this says a whole lot more about how cerebral Ventura is on the mound. In Jones' previous at-bat, which you can see at the 27-second mark, he smoked a liner to center on a Ventura fastball that happened to be right at Lorenzo Cain. This time, after getting ahead of Jones 1-2, Ventura broke out the changeup. Jones clearly reads fastball out of Ventura's hand, but the pitch dies as it gets to the hitting zone, registering 87 mph on the radar gun.

Ventura is a budding star, for the Royals, and incredibly tough to get to when he's commanding his fastball, curve and changeup. Masahiro Tanaka appropriately gets a ton of attention, but he isn't the only AL rookie pitcher confounding hitters on a regular basis.

By the numbers

.355 -- Madson Bumgarner's BABIP, despite a respectable 19.2-percent line-drive rate. Expect his ERA and WHIP to come down in short order.

35.9 -- How good has Zack Greinke been this year? His O-swing percentage, which is listed here and measures the rate at which hitters swing at his pitches outside the zone, should tell you.

2.1 -- Percentage of fly balls allowed by Garrett Richards that have left the yard. There are a lot of reasons he's having so much success this year, but that's a big one.

0 -- Losses for Masahiro Tanaka in his last 35 starts, 27 of which came in Japan last year. Pitcher wins are an antiquated stat, but that's just cool.

23 -- The number of starting pitchers currently getting at least one strikeout per inning. Going back to 2000, there's never been more than 12 in a season. Nearly that number (11) are striking out at least 10 batters per nine innings.

7th -- Jose Fernandez' major league rank in strikeouts, despite tearing his ulnar collateral ligament a week ago. In related news, I miss Jose Fernandez. (Who doesn't?)

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