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Johnny Cueto and sustained luck

The Cincinnati right-hander has run with the big dogs for several years now, despite middling-to-average peripherals and a traditionally hitter-friendly home ballpark. This isn't as common as one might suspect.

When he's healthy, Cueto is one of the best — and luckiest — hurlers in the NL.
When he's healthy, Cueto is one of the best — and luckiest — hurlers in the NL.
Andy Lyons

Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, the best pitcher in the majors (by rWAR, at least) has been Johnny Cueto for the Cincinnati Reds, whose 1.25 ERA in 72.0 innings leads the world by a healthy margin. He has dominated before — in 2011 and 2012, his ERAs were 2.31 and 2.78 — but never on this level. Assuming he isn't traded to an AL team before the season's end, he'll win the NL Cy Young comfortably.

What has caused this sudden surge? David Schoenfield posits that Cueto's recent addition of a cutter — and its symbiosis with his changeup — have elevated him to deity status. Meanwhile, Jeff Sullivan notes that Cueto's been getting considerably more looking strikeouts than in years past, an uptick he attributes to changes in pitch selection and location. Chris Cwik observes that, of Cueto's six pitches, five have seen increased whiff rates in the early going, a trend most likely caused by higher velocity.

All of this is excellent analysis, but for the most part, it ignores a large factor on which Cueto has predicated much of his success: luck. Thus far, Cueto's posted a .160 BABIP and a 99.5% LOB%, both of which are the best in the majors. Both numbers would be the best ever if he maintains them*, which he won't. Cueto's hot start comes chiefly as a result of these extraordinary numbers; while he's in first place in ERA, his xFIP is seventh and his FIP is 23rd.

*Of course, so would a 1.25 ERA, but that shouldn't obscure his tremendously good fortune.

This is nothing new for Cueto. From 2008 (in which he made his debut) to 2013, Cueto put up the sixth-highest strand rate (75.8%) and the 17th-lowest average on balls in play (.283) out of 68 pitchers with at least 800 innings. Hence, while his 3.53 ERA over that span ranked 20th, his 4.01 FIP only ranked 43rd. Couple this with his aforementioned lucky 2014, and since 2008, Cueto's ERA-FIP differential of -0.57 leads the majors.

The weirdest thing about all this? Cueto pitches for the Reds, who play half their games in Great American Ball Park. It has a reputation as a hitter's park, and for good reason — by FanGraphs' Basic Park Factor, it ranked seventh in 2008ninth in 2009 and 201014th in 2011, and 13th in 2012 and 2013 in terms of hitter-friendliness. Although that's not as hitter-friendly as one might think, it still favors batters, which makes Cueto's success there all the more strange. Certainly part of this is his ability to hold runners, but that only covers the LOB%, not the BABIP.

As we so often do when presented with an oddity, let's look at history. Since, say, 1920, over as large of a sample as Cueto's accrued (1000 innings), up until Cueto's current age (28), how many pitchers have overperformed this much?

Not many, actually. Using those criteria, Cueto's career ERA-FIP differential is the 11th-highest of all time. Of the 363 pitchers the sample includes, 18 have a difference of -0.50 or greater. How did these fellows fare as their careers went on? Did their luck continue, or did it run out?

Primarily, the latter.

Name 14-28 IP 14-28 ERA 14-28 FIP 14-28 ERA-FIP 29+IP 29+ERA 29+FIP 29+ ERA-FIP
Whitey Ford 1138.1 2.71 3.54 -0.82 2032.0 2.76 3.18 -0.42
Bill Lee 1288.1 3.16 3.9 -0.74 1575.2 3.86 3.63 0.23
Hal Schumacher 1736.2 3.38 4.11 -0.74 745.2 3.31 3.92 -0.61
Lon Warneke 1662.0 3.09 3.8 -0.71 1120.1 3.33 3.72 -0.39
Jim Palmer 1866.2 2.72 3.38 -0.66 2081.1 2.98 3.67 -0.69
Lefty Gomez 1797.2 3.2 3.83 -0.63 705.1 3.70 4.08 -0.38
Mudcat Grant 1380.2 3.94 4.56 -0.62 1061 3.23 3.66 -0.43
Barry Zito 1430.1 3.55 4.17 -0.62 1139.1 4.62 4.61 0.01
Eddie Rommel 1808.2 3.48 4.09 -0.62 747.2 3.70 4.29 -0.59
Tommy Bridges 1194.0 3.67 4.28 -0.6 1632.1 3.50 3.63 -0.13
Johnny Cueto 1036.2 3.37 3.94 -0.57
Freddie Fitzsimmons 1245.2 3.66 4.23 -0.56 1978.0 3.41 3.98 -0.57
Bill Travers 1078.0 4.03 4.59 -0.56 42.2 5.91 4.33 1.58
Wilson Alvarez 1273.0 3.93 4.47 -0.54 474.2 4.04 4.30 -0.26
Dave Rozema 1095.1 3.45 3.99 -0.54 10.2 5.91 4.27 1.64
Mel Stottlemyre 1745.2 2.89 3.42 -0.53 915.2 3.12 3.31 -0.19
Blue Moon Odom 1316.1 3.44 3.96 -0.53 192.2 5.47 4.21 1.26
Eddie Smith 1212.1 3.82 4.32 -0.51 383.1 3.85 3.60 0.25
Averages 1405.2 3.42 4.03 -0.62 990.1 3.92 3.91 0.02

On the whole, the pitchers performed much closer to their peripherals, as we might expect. Some of them (Palmer, Schumacher) kept chugging along; others (Travers, Rozema) washed out. Zito's the only modern pitcher on the list, and also one of the most similar overall — a comparison that may terrify Reds fans.

This is far from a conclusive study — nothing I do ever is — but it does serve to, at least partially, confirm something we already knew: The Luck Dragons are fickle creatures. The longer he beats his FIP, the more you believe it's skill, but given the history of similar starters, we haven't reached that point. Cueto will hit the free-agent market after 2015, and if this exercise is any indication, teams should be wary about rewarding him.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Saturday, May 17th, 2014.

Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He's also written on the FanGraphs Community blog and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Veep, Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO. Boldly running for president. Proudly standing for everything.