This post will be my first of a new series. The featured pitcher section of the Aces in the Hole series seemed to be what garnered the most interest, so instead of merely featuring one pitcher per week, I will cease with the two start pitchers and instead take a focused look at two pitchers each week. One feature will be focused on recommendations for commonly owned pitchers, while the other will look at an arm that falls under my 40% owned threshold.
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
Cueto is universally owned. If he is not owned in your league, you either play in an AL only league, a 2 team league where you can only own 1 SP at a time, or a wack league where poor stats get you points.
I have received quite a few questions about Johnny Cueto lately. He is a frontrunner for the NL Cy Young award at the moment and he has carried fantasy owners’ pitching staffs over the season’s first two months. The question is, how good is Cueto and what should his owners expect over the second half of the season?
Cueto has been the number 1 pitcher in the fantasy game so far. His ratios are nothing short of spectacular with an ERA of 1.97, a WHIP of .79 and better than a strikeout per inning. Obviously, Cueto is not Bob Gibson, so these numbers will regress, but let’s take a closer look at factors that have allowed him to get off to such a sensational start.
Batted Ball Profile
Cueto is really good at keeping the ball on the ground and avoiding hard contact. Since 2011, his ground ball rate has hovered near 50% (53.4% this season) and he has avoided HRs by limiting fly balls. His line drive rate has fluctuated some, but this season he is only allowing line drives 15% of the time, indicating that his .196 BABIP is not entirely flukey.
Aside from a lower than normal line drive rate, there is not really much that jumps out here. His BABIP will surely regress, but he has the skills to keep this number near .250 if he can keep limiting line drives.
Ks and BBs
Cueto has always had elite control. This year, he has walked only 6% of batters faced. While this is on the low-end of the expected range for Cueto, it is not a career best and he can absolutely sustain it.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Cueto’s early season surge is the career high strikeout rate. He is striking out an alarming 26% of batters faced with a K/9 of 9.06 against a career average of just 7.21
Cueto’s velocity is up a little, but his swinging strike rate is right in line with career averages. Most of his K gain is due to called strikes, but when looking at swing % data hitters are not offering at fewer pitches inside the zone. It would be unreasonable to expect Cueto to continue striking out a batter an inning. I would expect his K/9 to be closer to 8 by season’s end.
Cueto’s 2013 was cut short by multiple injuries, and he has been forced to deal with DL stints at other times too. Much has been made of the twisting motion in Cueto’s delivery and whether or not this motion opens him up to increased injury risk. Cueto has been the model of health so far in 2014, but his history SHOULD still deflate his value somewhat.
Rest of Season Recommendations
Johnny Cueto is an excellent pitcher, but he might be worth a little more to your team as a trade chip at this point. He has consistently been able to outperform his ERA indicators, so a rest of season ERA in the mid-twos is possible. He will always be a positive contributor in the WHIP category, but the K rate should come back down to earth a little.
Personally, I rank Cueto inside the top 10, but he is not in the SP top 5. The injury risk along with likely K regression make Cueto less valuable than guys like Bumgarner, Sale, and Felix Hernandez.
While I think that a pitcher with a mid-twos ERA, a strong WHIP and 8 Ks per 9 innings is absolutely a terrific fantasy asset, some owners are valuing Cueto in the same tier as Wainwright and Darvish. If there is such an owner in your league, you should be able to get a substantial return. Perhaps a package including a comparable, but less valuable pitcher like Iwakuma and a strong bat like Rizzo would be a wise move.
It is always extremely difficult to part with the studs who are carrying our teams, but remember that you get to keep the stats that a player has already accumulated when you deal them away. Too often, we hesitate on potential deals that could help our teams because we are fixated on the past.
What will help your team more going forward: Johnny Cueto? Or the possible return package offering 2nd/3rd round value?
Tanner Roark, Washington Nationals
Roark is owned in 34% of Y! leagues and 20% of ESPN leagues.
Roark has not been fantasy relevant for long, but we now have a sample size of 17 major league starts with which to evaluate his performance. He has been able to post an ERA under 3.00 and a WHIP near 1.00 with a K/9 that won’t hurt too much. Ironically, although his style is different, Roark’s numbers resemble those of a poor man’s Johnny Cueto. The question here is whether Roark deserves to be owned in more leagues?
Ks and BBs
Roark’s greatest asset is his control. He had a BB% of 5.4 last season, and 5.8 so far this year. He simply will not beat himself. When you combine elite control with an average K rate (19.7% Ks), you have a pitcher likely to be an asset in the WHIP category.
Like Cueto, Roark is able to get a lot of called strikes with his ability to paint the corners. Unlike Cueto, he lacks the swing and miss stuff, so his ceiling is far lower. Still, most fantasy owners will gladly take a 3.39 K/BB ratio.
Batted Ball Profile
Roark gets ground balls at a high rate (49.2% career GB rate) and he is usually able to avoid hard contact. His line drive and fly ball rates have been much different over the past two seasons and the sample size here is still too small to know exactly what to expect going forward.
The two things we can be sure about are his ground ball tendencies and his ability to limit HRs. Throughout Roark’s minor league career, he only allowed more than .85 HR/9 twice and both of those occasions involved sample of fewer than 40 innings pitched.
It would be unreasonable to expect Roark’s BABIP to remain in the .250 range, but Roark’s skills seem to suggest that he should still be better than league average in BABIP.
Roark has been sensational at home and much more average on the road. While it is true that I would bench Roark from time to time for road starts, his home dominance almost makes him matchup proof when he takes the mound in Washington.
Rest of Season Recommendations
Roark is not a fantasy ace because of a lack of Ks, but he is a pitcher who is able to successfully limit baserunners and avoid HRs. His skill set makes it likely that he will be an asset in both ERA and WHIP. Since he pitches for a pretty good Nationals team, he will get his fair share of wins too.
Some will point to the splits as a weakness, but I don’t see it that way. The splits make lineup decisions pretty easy for Roark owners. If you can afford to roster an SP that you can leave on your bench for some starts, then Roark can help you.
For the rest of the season, I would expect an ERA in the low to mid 3s, a WHIP between 1.10 and 1.15 and a healthy dose of wins. Those numbers are playable in the shallowest of leagues, folks. Go ahead and grab Roark if he is on your free agent list. He is better than some pitchers who are almost universally owned.