If you didn’t consider either the Aramis Ramirez or Scott Kazmir trades last week the first blockbuster of this year’s deadline deals, then you can certainly cross that event off your list now. Johnny Cueto leaves the only team he has played for and travels West to the darling Kansas City Royals. Does Cueto’s value “receive a big boost”, as one popular fantasy news site suggests?
Let’s start with the league switch. Obviously we know that when a pitcher moves from the National League to the American League, it hurts his fantasy value as he’ll no longer get to face pitchers, but instead do battle with the designated hitters. While comparing overall league stats isn’t a perfect way to assess how the change in league might affect Cueto’s performance, it should work well enough. Here are some relevant metrics for the two leagues:
As we figured, the K% for NL starting pitchers is higher than for their AL counterparts, though the walk rate is identical. Perhaps surprisingly, the BABIP is lower in the AL. Maybe the defense is better there? Also a bit of a surprise that the HR/FB rate is higher in the NL, which might just say more about the hitters than anything league related. Bottom line is that all else being equal, Cueto is going to lose strikeouts moving to the American League.
There was little chance he was going to sustain his career high strikeout rate posted last year, but he has held onto half of his gains. He might give those gains up and drop into the 22% range in the American League now. His xK% currently sits at 22.1%, which is a bit below his actual mark and he hasn’t consistently outperformed his xK%. Only last year did he do so significantly. So there may be a bit more downside than one might assume at first glance.
Now let’s move on to the ballpark switch. Our perception is that Great American Ballpark (GABP) is a hitter’s haven, while Kauffman Stadium is a pitcher’s park. Let’s see if that’s true.
Surprise, surprise! The two parks sport identical Basic park factors! The GABP is a home run haven, which we all know, but is actually slightly pitcher friendly for every other hit type. The park also boosts strikeouts. On the other hand, Kauffman severely inflates triples, which combined with marginally above average single and double facotrs, makes it a slightly hitter friendly park, despite its suppression of homers. It also reduces strikeouts.
So while the knee-jerk reaction was that the ball park switch should provide a significant boost in value, the numbers don’t actually back up that assertion. It’s also a bad sign that he’ll get a double whammy to his strikeout rate, both from the league switch and now the park switch as well.
Let’s move along to the two defenses. Both teams have reputations for strong defensive units. The Royals lead baseball in UZR/150, after ranking second last season. The Reds, who finished fourth in the metric last year, have dropped to just 16th, with a mark just into the negative. This is where Cueto should reap the greatest benefit. Except, his BABIP already sits at just .234! This would mark the third straight season his BABIP has been in the .230 range, despite a relatively league average batted ball profile. How much lower can his BABIP possibly go? So no matter how much the Royals defense might be better than the Reds, I just cannot believe he’ll be any better for it. I still can’t figure out how his BABIP has been low to begin with and nobody has a true talent BABIP that low (well, except maybe his new rotation mate Chris Young), let alone lower.
Last, we’ll check in on the offensive support. The Reds have scored 3.97 runs per game this year, good for ninth in the NL. But Cueto hasn’t been as lucky, as he has received just 3.42 runs of support on average. The Royals offense has been slightly better, scoring 4.32 runs a game, which ranks seventh in the AL. These numbers are close enough that going forward, we shouldn’t expect Cueto to enjoy much of a benefit from the change in offensive support.
So let’s wrap all this up:
Move to the AL –> bad overall, and specifically for strikeouts
Move to Kauffman Stadium –> probably about neutral; good for homers allowed, bad for strikeouts, even for overall run scoring
Change in defensive support –> positive, but with a BABIP ranking second among qualified starters in baseball, it can’t get any lower, so little benefit should be reaped
Change in offensive support –> the slightest bit positive
I would argue that if anything, the move is a slight negative, due primarily to having to face the DH and losing strikeouts. I cannot see how this could possibly result in a big boost in fantasy value here. Of course, AL-Only leaguers are going to have to empty their FAAB wallets for him anyway, because even some regression is still not going to prevent him from being a difference maker over the final two months.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.