If you’re a fan of dreadlocks or amazing Instagram accounts, I’m sure you’re familiar with San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Johnny Cueto. Well, there is that, and the fact that he is one of the best pitchers in all of Major League Baseball not named Clayton Kershaw. Being of that caliber also helps make you a household name.
This season Cueto owns an impressive 2.07 ERA, which is backed by a strong 2.44 FIP. For a point of reference, both his ERA and FIP are more than a run lower than his career average. In terms of fWAR, he rates out as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, and has been about as valuable through 109.1 innings this season as he was through 212 innings last season. Needless to say, Cueto has been phenomenal this season — and the stats back it up.
The thing about baseball is that sometimes the smallest things can have a large impact. In Cueto’s case, this is the first pitch of an at-bat. Johnny Cueto’s success this season comes from his ability to get ahead on the first pitch. Think of the three potential results of the first pitch of a plate appearance. The pitch will either be a strike, a ball, or result in some type of plate appearance-ending outcome (hit, out, error, HBP, sac bunt, etc.). Combining the outcome and strike category together, we see that Cueto has started a batter off with a strike 68.4 percent of the time. Not only is this well above his career average, it’s also good enough for the seventh-highest mark in the Majors for pitchers with at least 50 innings.
Now let's take the outcome and strike category apart, and shift our focus to the strike and ball category. Although 13.4 percent of the batters that have ended their plate appearance on the first pitch against Cueto are important, thanks to FanGraphs through splits we can see the largest benefit to him comes in the instances where the at bat continues. So far in 2016, the difference one pitch has made on at-bats going forward has been fairly spectacular:
|Total Batters Faced (%)||AVG||OBP||SLG||wOBA||K%||BB%||GB%||Soft%|
If you ever pitched growing up, you have probably been told (ad nauseam) by some coach about the importance of getting ahead early. Drilled into your head like the answer to a test question you were to be given once you stepped foot on the mound. As if, just before the first pitch of every at-bat, you had a devil on your shoulder attempting to convince you to throw a ball instead of a strike. "Come on, throw a ball. You don’t need to throw a strike here. Gotta make it interesting", the little devil would plea. To which you were supposed to reply, "My coach hath taught me thy most important pitch; striketh one. Be gone, satan!"
My point is that getting ahead early via the first pitch carries this stigma that is nothing short of canon for a pitcher. Of course there is value in first-pitch strikes. This can be seen in Cueto’s numbers, and across the league as well. It can also be seen in research done by Brian Oakchunas at Baseball Prospectus waaaay back in 2009, which alludes to the value and increased effectiveness pitchers who throw an extreme amount of first-pitch strikes (Cueto falls under this category this season) have. But the value doesn’t show up on the very next pitch, it comes from how well it positions a pitcher for the rest of the at-bat. The likelihood of recording an out at some point after the first pitch is much greater from 0-1 than it is from 1-0. What it boils down to is essentially the opportunity cost this one pitch has on the rest of the at-bat.
Now, more than ever, Cueto is cashing in on this principal. Before I described just how different of a pitcher he is when throwing a strike to lead off a hitter as opposed to a ball, but those stout differences are some of the highest of his career. The dichotomy he has featured this season stands out, and the fact that he has been able to get ahead of hitters on the first pitch at a career-high rate has allowed him to reap the benefits:
|Season||Total Batters Faced (%)||wOBA||K%||BB%||BABIP||GB%||Soft%|
(The difference comes from through 0-1 stats minus through 1-0 stats)
The importance of a first-pitch strike for Cueto this season is rather apparent. An easy explanation for this might be that the faster a pitcher gets ahead in the count, the greater ability they have to control it — i.e. throw pitches out of the strike zone that they think a hitter will chase. This control of the count helps keep a hitter off-balance, which has been an obsession of Cueto’s to begin with. With all the variations of motions that Cueto offers, you might say the phrase ‘pitching is disrupting a hitter's timing’ was coined specifically for him. As for the actual pitch side of disrupting a hitter's timing, when Cueto is ahead in the count he has a solid repertoire of pitches to choose from. The development of Cueto’s cutter and change-up have given him two solid options that help to further bury hitters, and getting ahead early gives him the ability to particularly use the change-up as a nice put-away pitch.
In case you don’t want to take Phil Hughes’ word for it, there are negatives to starting hitters off with a strike. Sometimes hitters swing at the first pitch and, as I mentioned before, Cueto is no exception. Hitters are 16-for-54 (.296) and slugging .491 on the first pitch of their plate appearances against him. Both of those rank just above Cueto’s respective career averages, while just below the average production on the first pitch of an at-bat for all of Major League Baseball. So while there are many good things that have come from Cueto starting hitters off with strike one, and good reasons for it, this would seem to be the best count to attack him in.
Nevertheless, success for Cueto this season has come from his ability to capitalize on the first pitch. Even though at-bats ending on the first pitch are at a career high for Cueto this season, they have still only accounted for a small portion of the total batters he has faced. This has allowed him to turn an ever-increasing ability to throw first-pitch strikes from a positive to an absolute strength. Starting hitters off with a strike early on has helped him maintain such a low walk rate, which is one of the driving forces behind his elite production overall. Another factor is his ability to keep that ball in the park, which is positively affected by throwing a first-pitch strike. Part of this comes from the vast space that is AT&T Park, while a fair amount of it comes from the softer contact and higher ground ball rate generated after starting off a hitter with strike one.
An amazing start to the 2016 season for Johnny Cueto has given the Giants one of the best 1-2 punches in all of baseball. Any normal season would likely have Cueto as a favorite to take home the National League Cy Young award, but alas Clayton Kershaw is still a NL pitcher. Regardless, Cueto has been lights-out in the first season of his six-year, $130 million deal. A large reason comes from just how valuable a first-pitch strike has been for him, in terms of the rest of the at-bat.
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a Junior pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management with a minor in Computer Information Systems. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.