​Johnny Cueto Isn't the National League's Best Pitcher, But He's Having a Great Year

In his first year with the Giants, Cueto has improved his game, and he’s getting the ball in the All-Star Game.

Every year, there’s a debate about which pitchers should start the MLB All-Star Game.

Between playing hometown favorites and having to work around a pitcher’s regular-season schedule, the guy who gets the nod is usually one of the best pitchers in each league, instead of being the best pitcher in each league.

That’s the case this year as San Francisco Giants’ hurler Johnny Cueto is getting the ball for the National League.

Let’s check out the numbers to see why Cueto’s first year with the Giants has been such a success.

Looking Back to 2015

Cueto spent the first half of last year with the Cincinnati Reds before being dealt to the Kansas City Royals. Kansas City acquired him to bolster their push toward a World Series title, but Cueto struggled, seeing his numbers tumble across the board.

Splits Innings Strikeout Rate BABIP Hard-Hit Rate fWAR
Reds 130 2/3 23.3% .234 28.1% 3.0
Royals 81 1/3 16.0% .343 29.5% 1.1

Cueto was certainly worse during his time in the American League, but he was also pretty unlucky. Despite Kansas City boasting an elite defense -- the Royals ranked first in UZR/150 last year -- Cueto’s BABIP shot up after the trade without much of a change in his batted-ball stats.

It wasn’t all bad, though.

Cueto got a ring, and he played a key role in the World Series win over the New York Mets, throwing a complete-game two-hitter in the Royals’ Game 2 victory.

He’s in the Zone

Cueto has made a few key statistical improvements this year, and one of those is that he is throwing significantly more strikes than he has in recent seasons. He’s also getting fewer swings on pitches in the zone, which seems like an odd combination.

Season Innings Zone% Z-Swing% Swing%
2012 217 41.4% 67.8% 47.3%
2013 60 2/3 40.2% 67.9% 48.2%
2014 243 2/3 39.9% 67.2% 47.7%
2015 212 41.5% 69.4% 49.2%
2016 131 1/3 47.0% 65.5% 47.8%

Cueto’s 47.0% Zone Percentage (Zone%), which is the percentage of pitches he throws in the strike zone, is his best clip since his rookie year in 2008. His Zone-Swing Percentage (Z-Swing%), the percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone, is his second-lowest mark.

So Cueto is throwing more strikes, and hitters are swinging less frequently. That’s good for Cueto, seeing as there is very little -- outside of a passed ball -- that can go wrong on a called strike.

Ground and Pound

Cueto is also inducing a lot more ground balls than he did last year.

Cueto’s ground-ball rate (GB%) has been all over the map throughout his career, especially in recent years, but it’s approaching career-best levels this season.

Season Ground-Ball Rate
2012 48.9%
2013 50.9%
2014 46.2%
2015 42.4%
2016 51.8%

More ground balls are always a good thing as there is less of a chance for the hitter to do damage -- namely homers and extra-base hits -- when the ball is put in play on the ground.

Little Bit of Luck

Cueto's good numbers this year are being boosted by some favorable luck.

His 6.0% home-run-to-fly-ball ratio is the second-lowest mark of his career, but some of that is due to Cueto now pitching his home games at AT&T Park, a pitcher-friendly stadium which ranks last in home run factor. Cueto has allowed a meager .243 wOBA in his home starts, and his homer-to-fly-ball ratio is 3.6% in San Francisco, compared to a 9.1% clip on the road.

While he was bitten by the BABIP monster last season, Cueto's .277 BABIP this year is back in line with his career average.

Also, despite having a worse swinging-strike rate this campaign (9.4%) than last year (9.9%), his strikeout rate in 2016 has climbed 2 full percentage points up to 22.3%.

A Worthy Selection

Cueto is a very good pitcher, and he’s deserving of the honor.

Let’s be clear, though: he’s not the best pitcher in the National League.

Clayton Kershaw 1.79 2.31 32.90% 5.5
Jose Fernandez 2.52 2.61 36.60% 3.9
Noah Syndergaard 2.56 2.69 30.40% 4.0
Max Scherzer 3.03 2.97 32.80% 2.5
Stephen Strasburg 2.62 3.10 31.40% 2.8
Aaron Nola 4.69 3.20 25.50% 2.3
Madison Bumgarner 1.94 3.30 28.50% 3.3
Johnny Cueto 2.47 3.54 22.30% 3.7

Clayton Kershaw, in the midst of a historical season, would have been an easy choice if he was healthy. Max Scherzer was inexplicably not selected for the squad, making it only as an injury replacement. Madison Bumgarner, Cueto’s teammate, started Sunday -- and was lights out -- which crossed him off the list of options. Stephen Strasburg just came off the disabled list, so he’s also unavailable, and Noah Syndergaard's arm woes have him sitting out, as well.

Jose Fernandez is the only available guy who could have a beef. He’s healthy, planning on pitching, and electric, and as you can see by the numbers, it's not difficult to make an argument for Fernandez over Cueto.

Fernandez is also really fun. That’s not to say Cueto is some kind of grinch, but it’s hard to find anyone who plays the game with Fernandez's jovial demeanor.

With that said, Cueto -- who is on his way to his fourth straight year with at least 4.0 Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), per FanGraphs -- is a worthwhile choice as one of the National League's better pitchers playing for one of the league's top teams.