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BABIP of the Week: Johnny Cueto

Every week, this feature looks at one batter, or pitcher, who's a good buy-low, sell-high, or hold, using BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) as a barometer. Last week, we debuted with Jay Bruce. This week: Johnny Cueto.

We're keeping Rotowire's masters (specifically Jeff Erickson) happy by pulling out a Cincinnati Red for the second straight week in TWIBABIP. But unlike Jay Bruce, who earned a buy-low rating largely due to his flukishly depressed BABIP, Cueto has been one of the luckier pitchers in the game to date. Just as Bruce owned the second-lowest BABIP among full-time hitters last week, Cueto's .237 figure is the second-lowest among qualifying starting pitchers this week. Since no one outside of the deepest leagues in the universe can realistically expect to land a windfall in trade for MLB's lowest BABIP man (Brian Tallet), let's turn our attention to how roto owners should handle Cueto going forward.

Since this is just Cueto's second season in the majors, we can draw an easy apples-to-apples comparison of some key indicators to gauge his results:

                2008   2009

K/9           8.17    6.44      
BB/9         3.52    2.67
P/PA         3.95    3.90
P/IP          17.5    15.4
HR/FB%   13.9     8.3
LD%         20.9    16.3
GB%         38.6    42.5
FB%         40.5    41.2

It looks like Cueto has changed his approach, and in the process become a different pitcher. By reputation, Cueto was a wild flame-thrower last season, firing his fastball as hard as possible and sacrificing control for higher strikeout totals. This year, both his strikeout and walk rates are down significantly.

So is Cueto throwing a different repertoire of pitches this season?

       2008    2009
FB   64.1     61.1
SL   30.6     32.1

A two-pitch pitcher who mixes in only an occasional change-up, Cueto's throwing fewer fastballs this season than last, though the numbers are pretty close. Cueto's also, either intentionally or otherwise, throwing slightly slower fastballs than last season--average mph of 93.4 last year, 92.6 so far this year (all pitch type and velocity numbers courtesy of FanGraphs.com).

There are other changes afoot too. Cueto's chopped his line drive rate considerably, inducing more groundballs and slightly more flyballs in the process--a great way to reduce a pitcher's BABIP.

Add it up all up and what do we get? A pitcher who's surely been somewhat lucky, but who's also become better at his job in the process. Cueto's dropped his FIP (Fieldoing Independent Pitching, a variant of ERA that focuses on the outcomes a pitcher can control most--walk rate, strikeout rate and home run rate) nearly a full run year-to-year, from 4.90 in 2008 to 3.96 this year.

Still, Cueto's ERA stands at 2.33, making him look like a top-5 pitcher, which he clearly isnt. Aside from his low BABIP, Cueto's HR/FB rate is a low 8.3% (down from 13.9% in 2008 and especially notable in a homer-friendly park); his strand rate is a sky-high 85.9%.

So, sell or hold? If you're in a keeper league, a pitcher this young showing these types of skills is almost a must-hold, barring some off-the-charts offer. In a one-year league, see what's out there. Owners' fetish for youth and Cueto's flashy ERA might be enough to land you a Nelson Cruz in return, or maybe a Josh Beckett-type if it's a challenge trade. If not, sit tight. Cueto isn't quite Roy Halladay, but he's still a pitcher who can be a key component on a winning fantasy team.

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