Reds pither Johnny Cueto has emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. Cueto has showed flashes of brilliance in the past, but he's never dominated this much. Through his first nine starts, Cueto has thrown three complete games, struck out over a batter per inning and posted a 1.25 ERA. Considering where he was drafted in most leagues, Cueto has single-handedly lifted some Fantasy teams to the top of the standings.
A big part of Cueto's early success has been his elevated strikeout rate. After posting a career-high 21.1 percent strikeout rate in 2013, Cueto has seen that number explode to 28.8 percent this year. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where he's picked up the extra punchouts. Cueto isn't working with a significantly altered repertoire. He's using both his fastball and two-seamer a little more often at the expense of his slider and changeup. The change hasn't been drastic, however, so it doesn't explain the uptick in strikeouts.
Though his strategy hasn't changed, he's been able to get more whiffs on a number of his offerings. Cueto's whiff rate is up on five of his six pitches thus far. In some cases, pitchers who add velocity will see this type of change, but that hasn't been the case with Cueto thus far. Aside from an uptick in his sinker velocity, all of his other pitches have maintained the same speed. His swinging strike rate is up, so even though it's tough to pinpoint how he's added strikeouts, it's clear that he's been tougher to hit this year.
Cueto's early season success probably makes him an intriguing sell-high candidate for most owners. Whether Fantasy owners should capitalize on his success is tough to say. Any player with a 1.25 ERA is due for regression. Cueto is no different. His .160 BABIP is the lowest in the league, and he's stranding 99.5 percent of base runners thus far. But even after both of those numbers regress, we're still left with a pretty awesome pitcher. If Cueto pitches to his 3.00 FIP (or 2.72 xFIP) the rest of the year, owners won't be disappointed.
The bigger issue is health. Cueto has pitched 200+ innings in a season just once in his career. He's been on the disabled list five times as well, including three separate stints in 2013. While he talked about altering his mechanics in order to prevent future injuries last season, there's no proof that he's over those issues. Cueto should continue to be an ace-caliber pitcher moving forward, but the threat of injury is large. He threatens to put Fantasy owners in a tough situation. Do you hope this is the year he stays healthy, or deal away a strong asset hoping his history catches up to him?