(This is the latest in a series by Jason in which he takes a look at the young stars of the Reds, and what to expect from them.)

I was all set to write about Johnny Cueto this week, and then our friends over at Red Reporter posted an article analyzing his performance, and I was bummed out. After I read the article, however, I realized I disagreed with a lot of it, so I decided to write about Cueto anyway.

You, me, and everyone we know (except opposing teams) has been happy with the results we’ve seen from Cueto this year. However, he’s been active for just over a month, and it’s pretty hard to know how reliable the results are without looking at the peripheral numbers. Additionally, I want to take a long look at what we might expect from Cueto down the road since he’ll likely be wearing the wishbone-c for quite a while.

We can’t really understand any pitcher until we fully understand the way offense has changed in the last several years. So let’s start with a chart that goes back to 2008, Cueto’s first year with the Reds:

Year NL ERA Cueto’s ERA Cueto’s FIP
2008 4.29 4.81 4.90
2009 4.19 4.41 4.69
2010 4.02 3.64 3.97
2011 3.78 1.93 3.49

There are a few things we can learn from this chart. The first is that offense is not what it used to be and we all need to reset what we believe is acceptable pitching performance. Any ERA over 4.00 and you have a pitcher performing significantly below average. The second is that, even with the drop in offense, Cueto has been getting steadily better.

The third, and I think most interesting thing, is that Cueto might be one of those pitchers (they do exist) who significantly out-performs his FIP. His ERA has been below his FIP every year, and for his career, he’s 0.35 runs better than he “should” be.

That said, I’m sure you all see the huge disparity between his ERA and FIP this year. Put simply, batters are only hitting .230 against them when they put the ball in play, and that isn’t sustainable. Given his history, I would guess that so far this year, he’s something like a 3.20 ERA true talent pitcher. That is very good and pretty much in line with what he did last year when you compare it to the rest of the league. Not quite ace-like, though.

I don’t think that’s bad news, however. Right now, Cueto is pitching like a number 2 starter, which means he is thoroughly above average. The key now is staying healthy. If he does, he’ll be a big help to the Reds’ playoff chances this year.

But what about the future? Cueto shows definite trends in how he pitches. His strikeouts, walks, and HRs allowed have all trended down, while his groundball rate has trended up. Basically, he’s become much more of a contact pitcher, and figures to stay that way as far as I (or anyone else, probably) can tell.

On the bright side, Cueto is only 25. Pitchers, as a group, peak at 27, but as individuals they tend to plateau. That is, a player will move up or down a level and more or less sit there for a while (you can see a level jump with Cueto after the ’09 season). Given his age, Cueto still has the potential to move up a level, but we have to wait and see if he does it.

On the dark side, Cueto has had some durability issues and we still don’t know if he can throw 200 innings a season, which is what you want from one of your top starters. Additionally, pitchers who stay healthy tend to pitch at high level well into their 30s.

What do I expect? I don’t see anything in Cueto’s numbers that makes me think he’ll take the leap and become an ace (not to say it couldn’t happen, it just doesn’t look likely), but he has thrown enough innings to make me think he’ll stick around. Best case: he’s a solid #2 starter for years. Worst case: Something breaks and he vanishes like so many pitchers before him.