For someone who hasn't spent a day on the disabled list since 2013, there sure are a lot of rumblings about Johnny Cueto's health this offseason.
It's not completely unwarranted. Cueto did miss a start last May due to a flexor tendon strain, and while an MRI revealed no tears or structural damage, his performance over his last 20 starts (including the postseason) raised questions. His fastball velocity dropped by nearly 1 mph from July 12 forward, with the biggest monthly drop coming in October. With lesser heat, Cueto got swings and misses at a 9 percent rate over the 20-start stretch, as opposed to a 12 percent rate in his first 16 starts.
Particularly after getting traded from the Reds to the Royals, Cueto was more hittable than usual, and in his final two months, he drew fewer swings. That latter trend unmasked Cueto's growing control issues, as he walked 22 batters in his final 59 1/3 innings. The overall picture in his last 20 starts -- a 7-9 record with a 4.60 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings -- was not an encouraging one.
So we can establish that Cueto was not himself for more than half of last season, but was he necessarily hurt? Just as his elbow checked out in May, the MRI that the Giants had done on Cueto's elbow as part of his physical also came back clean. Also, though Cueto's velocity decreased slightly during his protracted slump, his spin rate increased by 274 rpm from his first 16 starts to his final 20 (per TexasLeaguers.com), so he should have been able to at least maintain his typical strikeout rate.
Cueto's missing Ks could have resulted from a change in his vertical release points. As the graph below shows, he lowered his release point on his four-seamer, cutter and changeup. All three pitches were typically lower in the zone, and batters whiffed less often on his four-seamer and cutter in particular.
Pinpointing Cueto's release point and location as problems doesn't rule out the possibility of an injury, but there is no clear evidence that Cueto was hurt late last season or is hurt now. That doesn't mean the Giants' new righty is risk-free. Regardless of the underlying reason, Cueto's lower release point coincided with his struggles, and until he fixes it, there could be more disappointments ahead. The version of Cueto we saw from mid-July on was not one who could be trusted in mixed leagues, yet he ranks 25th among starting pitchers in average draft position.
Given that Cueto led all pitchers in Fantasy points and ranked second in Rotisserie value just two seasons ago, that's a reasonable discount for his risk. Scott White, Heath Cummings and I all have Cueto in our top 25 for starting pitchers, and he ranks 20th in FantasyPros.com's industry consensus rankings. However, should news emerge that Cueto's struggles were health-related, it will be time to give him a much deeper discount.