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Our free agent series continues with Johnny Cueto, who was the last of the big dominoes to fall. There are still a number of intriguing arms left on the market, including those with more glaring flaws or mechanical traits that have wavered over the last few years—aspects which effectively put the inconsistencies of the big-name pitchers into a brighter light.

The Player: Johnny Cueto

The Terms: San Francisco Giants for 6 years, $130 million

Cueto lands in the same Bay Area home as $90 million man Jeff Samardzija, where they'll join Madison Bumgarner, Jake Peavy and potentially Matt Cain in a formidable San Francisco rotation. Cueto's contract is in the Jordan Zimmermann strata rather than that of David Price or Zack Greinke, with the latter two representing the cream of this year's crop of free agent starting pitchers. The Giants opted to look one run down the expense ladder, coming away with a pair of pitchers who have their warts but were two of the better arms on the free market. Cueto's deal includes an opt-out clause, as is all the rage these days, such that he can explore the free agent market again in two years (prior to his age-32 season) if Cueto so chooses.

Career Stats

GS

IP

ERA

WHIP

H%

HR%

BB%

K%

226

1420.3

3.30

1.181

21.6%

2.5%

7.0%

19.9%

Cueto was a run-prevention machine for the past four-and-a-half years in the National League, posting sub-3.00 ERA's for the Reds from 2011 through '15, but his AL performance after a deadline deal sent the right-hander to Kansas City was less inspiring. Part of the issue was sample size, as his period of struggle really boiled down to a five-start stretch saw him cough up 48 hits and 28 earned runs in just 26.3 innings of work; the rough patch made it easy to forget that he had just posted four consecutive quality starts in harsh conditions: at Colorado, at Toronto, and two turns against the mighty Tigers.

Cueto's discrepancy between ERA and FIP has been a persistent part of his statistical profile, as his ERA has been lower in each full season of his career. The excellent run prevention isn't supported by peripheral stats alone, with a K rate that has woven between 19 and 25 percent since 2011 along with an ever-shrinking walk rate. His home run rate doesn't reflect any special proclivity for avoiding the deep fly but opposing batters have otherwise struggled to keep their numbers afloat against Cueto, with a hit rate under 20-percent since the start of 2013. The track record from the previous four years is part of what made Cueto's few months in KC such an outlier—he had a .264 BABIP from 2011-to-2015, a .237 BABIP for the Reds in '15, and the rate suddenly skyrocketed to a .345 mark during the regular season for the Royals. But hey, at least he got a ring.

His career platoon splits are nearly neutral, with just 20 points of OPS separating his performance against lefty batters and righties, and that career split is a bit backward by favoring his facing left-handers. Cueto has also been very stingy against baserunners, such that all of his crazy rhythm-altering tactics haven't gone for naught; for his career, attempted base thieves are just 25-for-63 (40 percent), and just 13-for-36 (36 percent) since the start of 2011.

The Stuff

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

FB Velocity

93.3

93.9

94.3

93.7

93.6

93.9

93.2

FB Frequency

62.0%

53.7%

51.9%

54.1%

46.0%

47.4%

51.3%

CUT Frequency

15.8%

12.1%

4.6%

21.3%

23.2%

19.8%

CH Frequency

7.7%

9.8%

8.5%

18.2%

18.1%

15.1%

16.0%

SL Frequency

30.3%

20.8%

14.7%

15.3%

13.8%

11.4%

9.6%

CB Frequency

12.8%

7.8%

0.6%

2.8%

3.4%

Cueto's hold on velocity has held very strong for the last six years, such that his 2015 pitch-speed was within a rounding error of his velo from '09. The average velocity hasn't dipped below 93 mph during that time and has mostly stayed within a narrow velo band, an element which deserves mention whenever Cueto's fragility enters the conversation. The pessimist could look at his 2015 velo and say it's the lowest it has ever been, which it was, but the dissipation is so minute that it might just be a statistical blip on the radar gun, so at this juncture it is merely an anecdote rather than a cause for concern. His pitch-speed declined a bit in his time with the Royals, an element that could have been tied to his slip in performance, but once again this is something worth noting more than it is some harbinger of impending doom.

The cutter and change-up have become greater parts of his arsenal over the past few years, underscoring Cueto's approach of manipulating subtle deception over sheer power when it comes to stuff. The change-up was uncharacteristically easy to lift last season, resulting in eight home runs off the pitch, exceeding the total gopherballs that Cueto had surrendered on changeups over the previous four seasons combined. The trends once against point to a momentary lapse of performance rather than a source of potential panic, and it is unlikely that the dips in stuff and stats from the final few months of 2015 are indicative of his skills moving forward.

The Mechanics

Mechanics Report Card

2012

2013

2014

2015

Balance

45

60

55

60

Momentum

45

45

45

45

Torque

50

50

55

55

Posture

50

55

50

55

Repetition

55

55

60

60

Overall

C

C +

C +

B –

For an explanation on the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

At peak, Cueto's mechanical baselines are as strong as ever – though that statement is admittedly easier for Cueto to justify given the relatively low levels from which he is working. Every element on his mechanics report card falls within a half-grade of average with the exception of repetition, and that latter aspect remarkable in and of itself when considering his modest mechanical baselines as well as his tendency to throw blatant wrinkles into his timing mechanism. I wrote a “Two Trains” piece on Cueto back in September, in which I highlighted his many pitch variations and noticed that such deception had become even more prevalent since crossing over to the American League.

Cueto has no fewer than four different moves, from the Tiant-twist to the quadruple-fake, a quick-pitch and his regular delivery, plus a few iterations inbetween. He typically does a great job of lining up the gears in these different scenarios, but such complications likely made it tougher for him to fix what ailed him at the end of last season – his timing was off, his command was off, he was missing spots, and though I would expect most players to have that problem when they carry four-plus deliveries, Cueto has shown previous mastery of these myriad timing patterns. His deception has become more exaggerated over time, and the current hydra approach can create a hurdle to finding a consistent release point.

Cueto has been slowly increasing the efficiency of his delivery for years, and in fact his 2012 grades represent a generous boost from his early-career report card. His stability has become steadily stronger as Cueto has minimized the head movement in the Y (up-down) and X (side-to-side) directions. One might expect that he would burst out of his exaggerated coil with plus momentum, particularly from the windup, but Cueto has demonstrated a more methodical pace to the plate throughout his big-league career. He finally cracked the B- level for his overall mechanics last season.

The Verdict: Proving it's possible to have too much of a good thing.

Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti has had success working with pitchers of completely different archetypes, from the leap-frogging Lincecum to the quiet Cain, the electric Peavy and the throwback delivery of Bumgarner, so the quirky Cueto ought to fit right in with the rest of the gang in the San Francisco rotation. The Giants are spending a lot on their 2016 rotation, with nearly $80 million committed to the five horsemen (not including Chris Heston) of AT&T, and that's with Samardzija earning just $9 million next season. The team has become very mound-heavy while playing half their games in a cavernous ballpark that can cover for pitcher mistakes, leaving the team looking like it will be playing a lot of 3-2 ballgames while the offense struggles to provide the necessary run support for the pitching staff. Cueto had a reputation for fragility prior to his recent run (200-plus innings pitched in three of the last four seasons), adding to the laundry list of potential concerns for a pitcher who is already riding on the margins.