Spin Doctors: Johnny Cueto vs. Stephen Strasburg

Johnny Cueto owners have reason to smile
Johnny Cueto owners have reason to smile

Johnny Cueto and Stephen Strasburg are going to be big-ticket items in most leagues this year. They’re both established arms, tucked into the National League, and buoyed by contending teams. But if push came to shove and you had to pick between these two arms, who would you select? Dalton Del Don and Scott Pianowski are here to play the feud.

Pianow Opens for Cueto: I personally chose this debate because I see these pitchers as commonly misunderstood. I also know that Del Don has some strange bias against his hometown Giants, so we need to explore that as much as possible.

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A lot of smart people love to tell you that Cueto is a lucky pitcher, or Strasburg is an unfortunate one. But what happens if these guys are lucky (or unlucky) every season? At what point do we shift our thinking and accept that maybe they’re doing something right (or wrong) under the surface?

Cueto’s career ERA is 3.23, against a fielding-independent ERA of 3.70. His front-door ERA — the stat we use in fantasy baseball, kids — has been lower than the estimate for nine straight seasons. Cueto has consistently shown the ability to induce soft contact and bear down with runners on base — to the point that it should be part of his price and profile by now. Everyone who keeps betting against Cueto keeps losing.

Meanwhile, Strasburg has underperformed his FIP estimate in five of six years. Last year, he missed by a whopping two-thirds of a run. Keep paying for that potential, dreamers. Cueto and Strasburg have almost identical career ERAs, but Cueto was 0.81 lower last year, enjoying his current home in roomy AT&T Park (a far cry from the Cincinnati bandbox, or American League life in KC).

If you were to scout the pitchers in street clothes, you’d probably bet on Strasburg, the strapping 6-foot-4 ace. Cueto looks like a chunky point guard from a Division II school. But I hope you noticed Cueto has five straight years over 200 innings, while Strasburg has hit that plateau once. In this instance, the thicker guy is the more durable guy, too.

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The two best days of Strasburg ownership are the day you draft him and the day you get rid of him. A DL stint is a virtual lock with this guy. Why should we bet against the tide?

Strasburg or Stressburg?
Strasburg or Stressburg?

Del Don Pines for Strasburg: After selling Gary Sanchez over Buster Posey last week, this is the second time in a row I’ll be arguing against a Giants player, which just doesn’t seem right given they are my favorite team. But alas, I have Strasburg ahead of Cueto on my SP board (albeit not by a ton), and Pianowski demanded I defend myself. Cueto is coming off a terrific first season in San Francisco and gets the benefit of the best pitcher’s park in all of baseball, and it’s hard for me not to admit Strasburg is the bigger injury risk (although Cueto hasn’t exactly been the most durable hurler throughout his career either).

But I’m swinging for upside here, and Strasburg just recorded 183 strikeouts over 147.2 innings, whereas Cueto failed to record 200 in 219.2 innings. That’s an 11.15 K/9 versus 8.11, and in leagues like Yahoo where the default setting is 1,400 max innings pitched, that’s huge. In formats with maxed innings, the strikeout category essentially becomes K rate. And there’s a big difference here between these two starters.

FIP isn’t a perfect stat, but Strasburg owns a career mark of 2.85. Cueto’s is 3.70. FIP probably underrates Cueto a bit since he does the little things well like holding baserunners, but again, that’s a pretty stark difference. Strasburg is still just 28 years old (three years younger than Cueto), and one of these seasons he’s going to put up a monstrous, 300-strikeout Cy Young campaign, and I want to have him on my team when it happens. Plus, he’s going a round later.