Champ or Chump: Johnny Cueto & Jose Quintana

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The All-Star break is behind us, meaning that we are in the middle of trade season. Some people want the Giants to sell Johnny Cueto, but they won't. His contract gives him an opt-out if he is traded this year, leaving any acquiring team stuck with an expensive has-been if he's bad and nothing if he's good enough to get another contract. The Giants also seem to think they could be good next year, preventing them from completely tearing down.

Jose Quintana was the first big name to be moved, going from Chicago all the way to... Chicago. Trades like this can dramatically alter a player's outlook, so it's a good time to reassess your opinion on them. Let's take a closer look at the two hurlers mentioned above.

Ownership rates provided are from Yahoo leagues.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Johnny Cueto (SP, SF) 93% Owned

If you were counting on Cueto to anchor your pitching staff, his 6-7 record with a 4.59 ERA (4.42 xFIP) has left you wanting a lot more. His .302 BABIP and 74.6% strand rate both seem fine, but the ball is flying out of the park at a frightening 15.6% HR/FB. Is an ace hiding in there?

Nope! Cueto's .302 BABIP is 22 points higher than his career mark of .280, possibly inspiring some to bank on a rebound. Indeed, his 25.6% LD% is probably due for significant regression toward his career rate of 20.5%. However, the Giants are playing some of the worst defense in the league (29th in MLB by DRS), especially in the outfield. The three Giant outfielders with the most playing time (Denard Span, Gorkys Hernandez, and Hunter Pence) have combined for an atrocious -31 DRS. Span has been "worth" -16 in center field on his own. The reserves have also been terrible, as San Francisco outfielders have combined for -40 DRS overall.

Outfield defense this consistently bad should inflate any pitcher's BABIP, but Cueto has somehow avoided it. He currently has a BABIP on fly balls of .115 and a .636 mark on line drives. He would need to be a contact management wizard to sustain these airborne BABIPs with this outfield behind him, and Statcast suggests that he isn't.

Cueto's average airborne exit velocity against is roughly the same as it was last year, 92.5 mph vs. 92.4. However, batters are squaring up the ball with much greater frequency, producing 8.1% Brls/BBE against last year's rate of 4.4%. Clearly, he is not mitigating contact quality very effectively. Worse yet, allowing more Barrels in this power environment suggests that Cueto's flies will continue to leave the park at an alarming clip.

This would be fine if Cueto was a ground ball specialist, but his batted ball profile is trending in the wrong direction as well. Last year, batters managed only a 29% FB% against him, limiting the damage the long ball could do to him. His FB% has jumped to 35.2% this year, a rate only slightly better than average. Those banking on regression to last year's FB% are likely to be disappointed, as his career rate of 34.4% supports this year's total. Homers will always be more of a problem on the road than in San Francisco's spacious ballpark, but aces shouldn't need that kind of protection.

Cueto was miscast as a fantasy ace anyway, as his strikeouts have never been better than league average (20.4% K% this year). His change could be a great K pitch, boasting a 24.2% SwStr% and excellent 50.8% chase rate. Its low Zone% (28.1%) means that he can only use it while ahead in the count though, and Cueto can't achieve that consistently.

Cueto has dramatically increased his cutter usage (16.3% to 275%) at the expense of his sinker (20.1% to 16.9%) and slider (15.2% to 3.5%). His cutter does not have the Zone% to set up the change (37.2%), nor does it induce enough whiffs to generate Ks on its own (8.4% SwStr%), so throwing more of them does little to improve Cueto's profile. His sinker is a strike more often (48.8% Zone%), but still not often enough to reliably set up the change. In fact, only Cueto's fastball has a Zone% above 50%, and even it is barely so (51.7%). Cueto's slider is his second best pitch by SwStr% (14.7%, 51.3% chase), and he has virtually abandoned it. Strikeouts are never coming.

Cueto pitches for a team that assures he'll run an inflated BABIP in an environment seemingly designed to ensure he allows as many dingers as possible. His change could generate Ks if he could set it up, but he has to nibble too much to do so. Nine of the 19 homers he has allowed this season have come off of his wipeout change, suggesting that Cueto can be beat even in his ideal scenario. Cueto's 800 arm angles and wind ups were an effective gimmick for a while, but the league has caught on. He belongs on waivers in most leagues.

Verdict: Chump

 
Jose Quintana (SP, CHC) 92% Owned

The Cubs paid a high prospect price to import a controllable pitcher from their crosstown rivals, a seemingly foolish decision considering his 4.49 ERA (4.13 xFIP). Quintana's BABIP (.301) and strand rate (70.6%) are around average, while his career-worst 12.8% HR/FB is actually better than average in this homer-happy environment. His 24.6% K% is also a career high even if it is accompanied by a career-high in BB% (9%). Will Quintana's Cub career be worth rostering in fantasy?

Yes, if you keep expectations in check. Let's start with the positives. Quintana's newfound longball struggles can be traced to Guaranteed Rate Field, where he has allowed 10 of his 14 HR despite pitching just 44 of his 104.1 IP there. The park has a well-deserved reputation for inflating power numbers, and Quintana shouldn't need to pitch there again now that he has been traded. His HR/FB should regress to his career 9.2% rate as a result, making him elite at mitigating homers again.

Statcast suggests that Quintana has not been quite as effective at limiting homers as he used to be, but there is nothing catastrophic like Cueto's Brls/BBE doubling. His average airborne exit velocity is up a tick, from 91.2 mph last year to 92.1 mph this. His Brls/BBE is also slightly higher, going from 4.5% last year to 5.5% this. Neither of these numbers are bad, so there is no reason his gopheritis should continue on the other side of Chicago.

Quintana also stands to benefit from the Cubs defense. Quintana's 42.9% GB% and 37.7% FB% mean that he relies on all of his defenders about evenly, forcing us to consider the entire teams. The White Sox have an inconsistent defense, with some positions ranking very highly (11 DRS from second base, seven from centerfielder Leury Garcia in limited playing time, and four from 3B Todd Frazier) while others are far weaker (SS Tim Anderson and LF Melky Cabrera both have -5, 1B Jose Abreu has -3). Overall, the club has -4 DRS, 16th in baseball.

The Cubs aren't quite as good as they were last year, but their 23 DRS still rank fourth in the league. They have also received 11 DRS from a collection of second sackers, plus 14 from shortstop Addison Russell, 12 from outfielder Jason Heyward, and eight from Anthony Rizzo at first base. The only regular Cub who ranks as a strong minus defensively is LF Kyle Schwarber (-5), and he is no worse than Melky Cabrera at the same position. This type of defensive support should allow Quintana to get his BABIP under .300, improving his fantasy owners' WHIP in the process.

Starting with the positives implies that there are negatives to consider, mostly tied to Quintana's fluky K%. Quintana has decreased his sinker usage (25.2% to 20.3%) in order to mix in more curves (25% to 29.8%), a pitch change that would be expected to produce more Ks. Quintana's sinker is terrible, offering a SwStr% of just 3.9% and giving up nine of Quintana's 14 homers allowed. The curve's 14% SwStr% is the best in Quintana's arsenal, so throwing more of it suits fantasy owners well.

The problem is that the curve isn't that good of a pitch. A 14% SwStr% isn't great, and the accompanying 29.8% Zone% does a lot to explain Quintana's career-worst BB%. The pitch has a career Zone% of 36%, suggesting that Quintana is intentionally burying it more to generate more whiffs. The same thing appears to be happening with Quintana's fastball, which has a 52.4% Zone% against a career mark of 57.8%. The approach has benefited from some initial surprise value, but ultimately won't be enough to sustain an above average K%.

The rest of Quintana's repertoire is lackluster. He throws a change that either needs to be a strike (28.7% Zone%) or get chased (27.5%) a lot more often to matter. His fastball also has a middling 6.5% SwStr% despite spending less time in the strike zone than it usually does. Quintana simply lacks the raw stuff to generate a lot of strikeouts, and trying to is only going to inflate his BB%.

If the Cubs convince him to trust the defense discussed above, Quintana may return to his glory days. Otherwise, he'll be a slightly diminished version of his past self who eats up a lot of innings with favorable ratios and a league-average strikeout rate. This profile is more valuable in real life than fantasy, but 200+ innings of better than average ERA and WHIP has its place in our game. Just don't overpay for it.

Verdict: Champ

 

 

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