Johnny Cueto and prime pitching seasons

Johnny Cueto is thus far having a pitching season for the ages. While his level of dominance is surprising, Cueto’s past performance coming into this, his age 28 season, did project to a superior performance and possibly a career best year.

After the jump, more on Johnny Cueto and prime pitching seasons.

First off, let’s establish a few facts. Cueto did not come out of nowhere as some would suggest. In his last full season in 2012, he won 19 games and finished 4th in CYA balloting. In each of his past 3 seasons, Cueto has posted an ERA+ better than 135 and a WHIP below 1.200, marks he shares only with Clayton Kershaw among pitchers with 10+ starts in each of those seasons. I think those are sufficient bonafides, even with limited IP, for allowing that a blockbuster age 28 season could be in the offing.

So, if he has the bonafides, what precedents are there for this type of season at this point of his career. To find out, I looked at live ball era pitchers like Cueto, with 150-200 starts and 115-125 ERA+ through their age 27 seasons. Here’s that group.

Rk Player ERA+ GS From To Age CG SHO W L W-L% IP BB SO ERA FIP Tm
1 Fergie Jenkins 125 171 1965 1970 22-27 89 17 91 68 .572 1418.1 333 1203 3.05 2.86 PHI-CHC
2 Gary Nolan 125 200 1967 1975 19-27 38 13 91 57 .615 1377.2 372 894 2.89 3.07 CIN
3 Johnny Antonelli 123 179 1948 1957 18-27 71 20 84 76 .525 1297.2 456 766 3.21 3.47 BSN-MLN-NYG
4 Jim Maloney 123 196 1960 1967 20-27 60 22 106 65 .620 1416.1 605 1302 3.04 3.01 CIN
5 Lefty Gomez 122 186 1930 1936 21-27 104 14 114 58 .663 1519.1 628 912 3.36 3.94 NYY
6 Eddie Rommel 122 170 1920 1925 22-27 102 12 107 87 .552 1590.1 490 383 3.53 4.14 PHA
7 Billy Pierce 121 179 1945 1954 18-27 86 17 79 79 .500 1412.0 650 850 3.32 3.53 DET-CHW
8 Mike Hampton 121 187 1993 2000 20-27 16 7 85 53 .616 1260.2 489 852 3.44 3.92 SEA-HOU-NYM
9 Jake Peavy 121 199 2002 2008 21-27 6 3 86 62 .581 1261.0 407 1256 3.25 3.50 SDP
10 Andy Messersmith 120 156 1968 1973 22-27 52 14 73 57 .562 1222.0 479 945 2.76 3.12 CAL-LAD
11 Ned Garver 119 165 1948 1953 22-27 90 6 71 79 .473 1283.2 525 446 3.75 4.07 SLB-DET
12 Andy Pettitte 118 158 1995 1999 23-27 14 1 81 46 .638 1044.1 376 709 3.92 3.96 NYY
13 Kerry Wood 118 164 1998 2004 21-27 11 5 67 50 .573 1043.0 512 1209 3.63 3.79 CHC
14 Dan Haren 118 154 2003 2008 22-27 6 1 65 52 .556 997.1 232 812 3.72 3.76 STL-OAK-ARI
15 John Candelaria 118 181 1975 1981 21-27 39 7 83 54 .606 1241.1 297 672 3.16 3.57 PIT
16 Johnny Cueto 117 160 2008 2013 22-27 6 2 65 48 .575 964.2 299 753 3.53 4.01 CIN
17 Kevin Millwood 117 160 1997 2002 22-27 6 2 75 46 .620 1004.1 303 840 3.73 3.74 ATL
18 Jose Rijo 117 184 1984 1992 19-27 18 3 83 68 .550 1287.1 498 1096 3.26 3.22 NYY-OAK-CIN
19 Justin Verlander 117 165 2005 2010 22-27 10 3 83 52 .615 1064.1 353 965 3.81 3.61 DET
20 Josh Beckett 116 166 2001 2007 21-27 4 2 77 52 .597 1014.1 337 959 3.74 3.67 FLA-BOS
21 Steve Rogers 116 162 1973 1977 23-27 55 15 60 72 .455 1171.0 367 711 3.28 3.10 MON
22 Jack McDowell 116 166 1987 1993 21-27 43 8 81 49 .623 1162.2 377 791 3.46 3.58 CHW
23 Steve Barber 115 174 1960 1965 22-27 47 15 81 61 .570 1206.2 558 779 3.15 3.50 BAL
24 Jon Matlack 115 199 1971 1977 21-27 65 26 82 81 .503 1448.0 419 1023 3.03 2.88 NYM
25 Wilson Alvarez 115 171 1989 1997 19-27 10 4 71 54 .568 1130.1 561 839 3.83 4.39 TEX-CHW-SFG
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2014.

Interesting group, many of whom went on to complete quality careers, some worthy of HOF recognition. So, right away, we know that Cueto is apparently of a superior pedigree. How did this group fare in their age 28 seasons?

Rk Player ERA+ BB9 SO9 WHIP Year Age Tm GS CG SHO W L W-L% IP BB SO ERA FIP
1 Johnny Cueto 295 2.25 9.50 0.708 2014 28 CIN 9 3 2 4 2 .667 72.0 18 76 1.25 3.00
2 Billy Pierce 200 2.80 6.87 1.099 1955 28 CHW 26 16 6 15 10 .600 205.2 64 157 1.97 2.83
3 Lefty Gomez 193 3.01 6.27 1.171 1937 28 NYY 34 25 6 21 11 .656 278.1 93 194 2.33 3.13
4 Justin Verlander 172 2.04 8.96 0.920 2011 28 DET 34 4 2 24 5 .828 251.0 57 250 2.40 2.99
5 Jon Matlack 165 1.70 5.23 1.122 1978 28 TEX 33 18 2 15 13 .536 270.0 51 157 2.27 2.71
6 Jose Rijo 162 2.17 7.94 1.088 1993 28 CIN 36 2 1 14 9 .609 257.1 62 227 2.48 2.93
7 Steve Barber 147 3.31 6.14 1.148 1966 28 BAL 22 5 3 10 5 .667 133.1 49 91 2.29 2.94
8 Steve Rogers 143 2.63 5.18 1.142 1978 28 MON 29 11 1 13 10 .565 219.0 64 126 2.47 3.05
9 Dan Haren 142 1.49 8.75 1.003 2009 28 ARI 33 3 1 14 10 .583 229.1 38 223 3.14 3.23
10 Fergie Jenkins 141 1.02 7.28 1.049 1971 28 CHC 39 30 3 24 13 .649 325.0 37 263 2.77 2.38
11 Eddie Rommel 134 2.22 2.14 1.274 1926 28 PHA 26 12 3 11 11 .500 219.0 54 52 3.08 3.80
12 Ned Garver 133 2.27 3.40 1.129 1954 28 DET 32 16 3 14 11 .560 246.1 62 93 2.81 3.50
13 Andy Messersmith 132 2.89 6.80 1.098 1974 28 LAD 39 13 3 20 6 .769 292.1 94 221 2.59 3.13
14 John Candelaria 128 1.91 6.85 1.162 1982 28 PIT 30 1 1 12 7 .632 174.2 37 133 2.94 2.87
15 Jack McDowell 125 2.09 6.31 1.260 1994 28 CHW 25 6 2 10 9 .526 181.0 42 127 3.73 3.37
16 Johnny Antonelli 117 3.24 5.33 1.254 1958 28 SFG 34 13 0 16 13 .552 241.2 87 143 3.28 4.08
17 Jake Peavy 115 3.01 9.74 1.121 2009 28 TOT 16 1 0 9 6 .600 101.2 34 110 3.45 2.99
18 Josh Beckett 115 1.76 8.88 1.187 2008 28 BOS 27 1 0 12 10 .545 174.1 34 172 4.03 3.24
19 Andy Pettitte 111 3.52 5.50 1.461 2000 28 NYY 32 3 1 19 9 .679 204.2 80 125 4.35 4.22
20 Kerry Wood 105 3.55 10.50 1.182 2005 28 CHC 10 0 0 3 4 .429 66.0 26 77 4.23 4.72
21 Gary Nolan 102 1.02 4.25 1.082 1976 28 CIN 34 7 1 15 9 .625 239.1 27 113 3.46 3.56
22 Wilson Alvarez 101 4.29 6.75 1.388 1998 28 TBD 25 0 0 6 14 .300 142.2 68 107 4.73 4.90
23 Kevin Millwood 99 2.76 6.85 1.252 2003 28 PHI 35 5 3 14 12 .538 222.0 68 169 4.01 3.59
24 Mike Hampton 99 3.77 5.41 1.581 2001 28 COL 32 2 1 14 13 .519 203.0 85 122 5.41 5.21
25 Jim Maloney 88 3.48 7.87 1.271 1968 28 CIN 32 8 5 16 10 .615 207.0 80 181 3.61 2.89
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2014.

For the most part, outstanding seasons with 14 of 24 with an ERA+ of 125 or better, and 19 of 24 with ERA+ of 105. Five of the 24 had BB/9 under 2.00 and five more were below 2.25. A remarkable 17 of 24 had WHIP below 1.200, including 8 below 1.100. There are four 20-win seasons (each one a league-leading total) and 12 of the 24 have a W-L% of .600 or better.

Presumably Cueto will cool off at some point and start showing results that are merely outstanding rather than other-worldly. But, don’t be surprised if he posts a career-best season with some jaw-dropping totals. After all, as we saw 3 years ago with one of his comps, it has happened before.

20 thoughts on “Johnny Cueto and prime pitching seasons

  1. 1
    mosc says:

    Can BBREF create a spreadsheet of pitching WAR by season age? What’s the total WAR of 28 year olds vs say 32 year olds?

    • 4
      Richard Chester says:

      I did so BBREF can do it. I’ll post my results for the AL in 2013 after I eat my lunch.

    • 5
      Doug says:

      The FanGraphs WAR for 2013 starters, by age and IP,
      up to 21: 4.6 / 234
      22: 12.4 / 1252
      23: 16.6 / 1492
      24: 32.6 / 2536
      25: 37.0 / 3168
      26: 37.2 / 2888
      27: 37.2 / 2964
      28: 22.4 / 2147
      29: 48.1 / 3502
      30: 19.8 / 1711
      31: 11.5 / 859
      32: 19.3 / 1862
      33: 2.8 / 342
      34: 14.7 / 1441
      35 and up: 20.7 / 2273

      So, some the ages (incl. age 28) are a bit anomalous in terms of IP. Would need to capture these results over a number of seasons to get a better picture.

      • 6
        Richard Chester says:

        Here are my spreadsheet results for the AL in 2013.
        Age/WAR

        20/0.1
        22/-1.1
        23/6.3
        24/28.9
        25/21.1
        26/18.6
        27/16.1
        28/17.0
        29/26.4
        30/18.7
        31/9.3
        32/14.6
        33/1.9
        34/6.9
        35/4.3
        36/2.2
        37/1.2
        38/13.8
        39/-0.6
        40/4.3
        41/2.5
        42/0.2
        43/2.5

  2. 2
    Dr. Doom says:

    Check this blog out from Tango last week. There’s some interesting stuff in the comments (I admit, it was my work, so I’m plugging it a bit shamelessly). It’s a few days out of date, but it was Tango’s/my estimated chances of winning the Cy Young. Hint: it’s not as locked up as some of the numbers might have you believe. I’m not saying that’s correct; I’m just saying there’s a lot of room for change.

    • 3
      • 8
        Doug says:

        Interesting stuff, Dr. Doom.

        Trying to predict BBWAA results is always a tricky business – not sure that it really lends itself to deterministic analysis.

        • 16
          Dr. Doom says:

          Only thing is, Doug, that this method accurately predicts every winner since 2006 in both leagues. And not only that, it basically gets the right ORDER each year, too. It’s a pretty funny little tool.

    • 9
      John Autin says:

      Doom, your rough peg of 10% for Cueto’s CYA chance feels solid to me. Enlightened though our voters be, I’m sure that having just 4 wins from this impressive run will hurt his chances, along with Cincy’s generally disappointing start.

      I’d also say that a pretty big correction is due in Cueto’s luck. I’m not calling him “lucky” so far, just taking a cold view of these numbers:

      — K rate is way up, from 19% in prior career to 29% so far. His prior season high was 21%. Such spikes do happen, but they’re rare.

      That alone would explain a large part of his much better results this year. But then there’s this:

      — BAbip is way down, from .287 in prior career to .160 so far. The lowest qualified BAbip ever was .203 by Dave McNally in 1968.

      — 2 for 27 with RISP (both singles); 7 of 8 HRs with bases empty. Cueto has not previously shown any special ability in this regard. In 2012, his last full season, his RISP BA was .271, and 9 of 15 HRs came with someone on.

      Again, I don’t mean to detract from his results, for which I give him full credit. But it’s quite unusual for anyone to go instantly from good to supremely gifted.

      Verlander’s leap in 2011 came with no increase in K rate over 2009-10 combined. His biggest change was in control, and in results with men on base. But the men on base thing was more a matter of bringing those results more in line with his bases-empty numbers. For 2009-10, JV’s BA with men on was about 30 points higher than with nobody on. In 2011, just 8 points higher. A narrative of “fixing a problem” seems more sustainable than one of “becoming super-clutch.”

      • 17
        Dr. Doom says:

        I agree 100%. I had checked the BABIP numbers already, and I was astounded how low they were. I wasn’t aware of the RISP numbers or the HR factoid, but those are similar.

        In my opinion, this takes nothing away from Cueto. The dude is having an AWESOME season. I just don’t expect him to keep up THIS kind of year forever. Remember when Ubaldo Jimenez was having the greatest pitching season of all time at this point in the year? This reminds me a little of that. It’ll come to earth, at least a LITTLE. But I’m sure it still ends up a fine season.

        • 18
          Voomo Zanzibar says:

          Ubaldo, first TEN starts, 2009
          vs
          Cueto, first NINE starts, 2014:

          71 IP
          42 H
          07 R

          72 IP
          33 H
          10 R

          Ubaldo followed that up with a shutout.
          Including that, the rest of the way:

          150 IP
          122 H
          3.83 ERA

  3. 7
    David P says:

    Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs has a great article on Fox Sports about what Cueto’s been doing differently this year:

    http://msn.foxsports.com/mlb/story/what-makes-cincinnati-reds-ace-johnny-cueto-so-good-and-favorite-for-nl-cy-young-award-051614

  4. 10
    John Autin says:

    Doug — Interesting stuff. And so are the net SO%, WHIP and BAbip numbers on the guys in your table, comparing their age-28 to their career thru age 27. (No full BAbip data for Rommel or Gomez, so this is regarding the other 23.)

    Cueto has far and away the biggest age-28 delta in each of those stats:

    Net SO% — Cueto +10.2 percentage points, next is +5.7.

    Net WHIP — Cueto -0.54, next is -0.34.

    Net BAbip — Cueto -.127, next is -.061 (and then -.033).

    Of course, I’d love to see Cueto keep it up and snub all the skeptics. I’d love to report on his 30-game streak of allowing 2 runs or less in 8+ innings. But I expect to see 2012 Cueto pretty soon. Which is still darn good.

    • 13
      Doug says:

      When Cueto regresses to more normal performance, I suspect he will still have a good shot at a career best season. If nothing else, his change in mindset from the confidence he must have should be worth a few notches in improved performance. Nothing breeds confidence like success (and vice-versa).

      Add to that the fact that the median ERA+ of his group in their age 28 season is well north of the upper bound of their career ERA+ prior to that season, and you get a picture of solid pitchers entering their prime years and coming into their own as they (or some of them) transition into elite pitchers.

      Also, as you noted in your game notes, Cueto is already in uncharted territory in terms of preserving a hot start. So, while luck no doubt has been on his side, I suspect he’s also just pitching better than he has before.

  5. 11
    Voomo Zanzibar says:

    1st season rookies, current WAR leaders:

    2.1 Tanaka
    1.1 Jose Abreu
    1.1 Yangervis Solarte
    0.7 Aaron Barrett
    0.4 James Jones

    • 12
      Voomo Zanzibar says:

      …posted that on the wrong page – sorry..

    • 14
      Doug says:

      James Jones at 0.4 WAR. Not bad for 35 PA.

      This kid looks great. Reminds me of Mickey Rivers. Except that he doesn’t look like an old man when he’s just walking.

  6. 15
    PaulE says:

    Oddity? As well as many of these guys pitched, only Jenkins led his league in CG’s.
    Gary Nolan: what might have been….
    Steve Barber didn’t see the mound in 1966 WS despite his 147 ERA+. The Orioles used 4 pitchers to hold the Dodgers to 2 runs in 36 innings.
    Cueto has overshadowed Szmardija (sic?) and his 1.42 ERA and hardluck 0-3.

    • 19
      Steven says:

      In 1966, Barber was pretty much done by the All-Star break. He started the season 10-2, then recurring arm miseries caught up with him. He only pitched a few times in the second half of the year.

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