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Where are all of the Johnny Cueto strikeouts coming from?

Johnny Cueto burst onto the scene in the 2008 season, and while it wasn’t hit best season overall, it was the season in which he struck out the highest rate of batters in his career in a full season when he struck out 20.6% of the batters he faced that season. He didn’t top 20% again until the 2013 season when he was at 21.1%, but he only threw 60.2 innings last year.

In the 2014 season so far, the Cincinnati Reds right hander has struck out a cool 30% of opposing batters.  That is nearly a 33% jump from his previous career high. Small sample size alerts abound, but Cueto has been flat out dominant this season when it comes to the strikeout (and most other things except for getting plenty of help from his offense).

We know that strikeouts are the best outcome for a pitcher. 99.99% of strikeouts go for outs with only the rare wild pitch strikeout leading to a base runner. When a ball is put in play it goes for a hit over 30% of the time and while pitchers can control the types of balls that are put in play to an extent, a strikeout is always better. So more strikeouts from an already dominant pitch like Cueto is going to be nothing but good things. We know he is getting more strikeouts, but how is he getting more strikeouts?

The first thing to look for is an uptick in velocity. So let’s take a look at the average velocity for each pitch in 2013 versus 2014:

2013 2014
 Pitch Velocity Velocity Difference
4S 93.7 93.9 0.2
2S 93.6 94.0 0.4
CH 84.4 85.4 1.1
SL 84.8 85.3 0.5
CV 76.2 81.2 5.0
CT 89.2 88.9 -0.3

Only two pitches are really showing differences in velocity. The change up is a little bit faster and the curveball is significantly faster. To be fair, Cueto has already thrown more curveballs in the 2014 season than he threw in all of the 2013 season, so the uptick in velocity there isn’t necessarily a big deal. It doesn’t look like the strikeouts are coming from an increase in velocity. Let’s look at the movement for each pitch:

2013 2014 Difference
Pitch Horizontal Vertical Horizontal Vertical Horizontal Vertical
4S -5.1 8.76 -5.54 9.57 -0.44 0.81
2S -8.32 6.02 -8.57 6.56 -0.25 0.54
CH -5.91 1.12 -6.86 2.24 -0.95 1.12
SL 1.89 -0.27 1.77 1.33 -0.12 1.60
CV 3.45 -5.72 2.34 -1.85 -1.11 3.87
CT -0.11 5.01 -0.29 5.09 -0.18 0.08

Here we can see some differences. All of his pitches are sinking less/rising more. All of his pitches are also showing more horizontal movement. That could be part of the reason he is getting more strikeouts. Different movement on both planes of all of his pitches than what guys were expecting based on past performances.  Let’s take a look at the whiff rate for each pitch, which is the rate of which guys swung and missed at a pitch when they did choose to swing:

2013 2014
Whiff% Whiff%
4S 10.87 8.14
2S 6.01 8.26
CH 22.47 32.14
SL 17.86 14.63
CV 0.00 10.53
CT 6.05 5.88

As noted earlier with the curveball, Cueto is throwing the curveball way more often, but it is still his least used pitch by far. The fastball, slider and cutter aren’t getting much difference in whiff rates, but there has been a big uptick in whiffs on the change up, nearly 50% more than in 2013. The uptick in whiff rate on the 2-seamer isn’t big, but it is worth noting that so far this season he has gone from 23% usage of the pitch in 2013 to using the pitch 31% of the time in 2014, so when those two get coupled together there are plenty more swings and misses on the 2-seam fastball.

In the end it seems that the usage of the 2-seamer more frequently and the uptick in swing and miss on the change up have been the reasons behind the increase in strikeouts so far for Cueto this season. We will have to wait and see if the hitters will be able to make some adjustments to Cueto as the season goes along, but for now it seems that the extra movement and more reliance on the 2-seam fastball has helped him get more strikeouts during the early part of the season.

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