If anything is more annoying than having people talk about you, it is certainly having no one talk about you (Oscar Wilde).
People who pay close attention to the Cincinnati Reds have talked about Johnny Cueto for years. Reds fans have extolled his talent dating back at least to the 2011 season. You may remember that 2011 Reds team as a profound disappointment. Coming off their surprising division championship and Halladay-shortened postseason in 2010, Dusty Baker’s next team collapsed in a campaign of complacency.
Johnny Cueto, on the other hand, put together a dazzling 2011. And Cincinnati Reds followers talked about him. But outside the fan base, a scant few joined the conversation.
It was a question of stature.
The Reds’ pint-sized performance that year surely distracted from Cueto’s accomplishment. The right-handers’ Lilliputian win total (9) hid his emerging talent from those who lacked the judgment to look beyond that crude measure. Possibly it was Cueto’s elfin physical stature that made skeptics discount his exploits, though surely Pedro Martinez’s sparkling career had disabused us of that mistake. For analysts who look beyond wins and losses as a way to evaluate pitchers, but also beyond ERA, it was Johnny Cueto’s undersized strikeout rate that held back full recognition.
But even the most hardened skeptics now recognize that awesome indeed comes in small, dreaded packages.
And that means everyone is finally talking about Johnny Cueto – fans, teammates, local beat writers, national analysts, even the Dominican pitcher himself. Johnny Cueto is in the conversation, the conversation. The Cy Young conversation, where he belongs. If he wins that award, it would be a first for the storied Cincinnati Reds franchise.
The eye-opening evidence is irresistible. He has authored more complete games (3) than any other team in the major leagues this year. In fact, only five teams have as many as two complete games. Cueto has six straight starts of at least eight innings. In all nine of his starts, he’s held the other team to two or fewer runs. Most importantly to the saber folks, Cueto’s strikeout rate has jumped from his career number of 19% to 29% this year. That’s statistical stature.
[Necessary caveat that doesn’t undermine my overall point: Johnny Cueto has benefitted from more than his due share of luck. Cueto has allowed 43 base runners and only two of them have scored. That’s a strand-rate or LOB% that is impossible to maintain, even at his new, improved strikeout rate. For context, the league average strand-rate is 74% and Cueto’s career number is 76.7%. The batting average on balls put into play (BABIP) against him is .160 and unsustainable. League BABIP is .292 and Cueto’s career average is .276. So even if you allow for Cueto’s ability over the years to outperform certain league metrics, the 28-year-old is out over his skis a bit. These are contributing factors keeping Cueto’s ERA at a mind-boggling 1.25.]
But Johnny Cueto’s remarkable start to 2014 is built on far more than luck. Bryan Price, who undoubtedly knows best, says Cueto’s 2014 success comes from a combination of “acute location” and pitching “his style of game.” Price explains what he means in an interview with Hall of Fame reporter Hal McCoy:
Price: “It is his acute location, not making mistakes in the middle of the plate, and he is pitching his best style of game — the heavy sinker-cutter combination and he has a swing-and-a-miss change-up, a strikeout pitch. He makes all those pitches at any time and doesn’t have to be predictable with a fastball. He throws them all ahead in the count or behind in the count.”
Cueto’s newfound ability to pitch deep into games is a dramatic reversal of those five-inning starts that plagued his younger days. Price has an explanation for that as well, beside better control – fewer waste pitches.
Price: “I’ve talked to Johnny about empty pitches, pitches that are thrown that don’t really serve a purpose, that don’t mean anything — the real high fastball or the slider that misses way outside. He has thrown so few of those empty pitches this year, the pitches that don’t serve a purpose. He is around the plate with everything and when he’s not, he is teasing the hitter with a pitch just off the plate or just below the zone or just above the zone.
“There has been talk about the number of innings he might pitch, but he has been so pitch-efficient. He is not going out for the eighth inning at 119 pitches or throwing 135 pitches to go nine innings. That makes it a lot more comfortable to see him out there in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.”
You’ll find additional insight from Price in McCoy’s article.
Jeff Sullivan (FanGraphs) offers a detailed breakdown of Johnny Cueto’s pitch selection that explains the pitcher’s newfound strikeout success. Cueto’s improvement on reaching strike-three has come from called strikes against both right-handed and left-handed batters. Sullivan attributes much of this to Cueto’s new mix of pitches that Price described, a pitching strategy that has improved his deceptiveness on third strikes.
Sullivan: “The change-up is still there — it’s still good, and it’s still a swing-and-miss weapon. But, sinkers and cutters used to account for about a fifth of Cueto’s strikeouts. This season, they’re more than half. He’s changed his two-strike approach to righties and lefties. Seen less often is Cueto’s slider. Previously, he liked to throw it low and away to righties, and low and in to lefties. These are common techniques, but in 2014 Cueto hasn’t tried to get many righties to chase, and lefties haven’t really seen that slider at all.”
Dave Schoenfield (ESPN) highlights Cueto’s cutter. Schoenfield points out that while most pitchers use their cutter with a pitch-to-contact strategy, Cueto’s cutter has reaped many swings and misses.
Schoenfield: “Most cutters are pitch-to-contact pitches — thrown with less velocity than a four-seam fastball but designed to induce weak contact thanks to the late movement (think Mariano Rivera). Yu Darvish, for example, has had 112 plate appearances over the past two seasons end with a cutter and has registered just five strikeouts. But Cueto gets punchouts with his cutter; he has 19 in 60 plate appearances ending in the pitch, a strikeout rate of 31.7 percent. The drawback is that if it doesn’t move, it’s ripe to be creamed: five of the seven home runs he’s allowed have come against the cutter.”
I’m writing this next sentence slowly for dramatic effect: Cueto has tripled his rate of called strikeouts in 2014.
The bandwagon of acclaim for Cueto is jammed full. Joel Rueter (Bleacher Reports) has a nice breakdown of the Cy Young race in the National League and calls Cueto the “clear-cut favorite.” Eric Stephen (SBNation) takes a long-term perspective, noting that Cueto has been among the best pitchers in the NL — when healthy — the past few years. That’s what Reds fans have been saying for a while.
Just after Johnny Cueto limited the Colorado Rockies’ explosive offense to two runs over eight innings, but before Cueto’s three-hit shutout of the Padres two days ago, John Fay (Cincinnati Enquirer) outlined the historic nature of Cueto’s start to the 2014 season:
Fay: “Cueto’s gone seven innings in all eight of his starts. The last Reds pitcher to go at least seven in his first eight starts was Bucky Walters in 1941. Walters’ ERA after eight starts was 2.12. And that was a different era, when pitchers threw complete games on a regular basis. In modern baseball, you have to be really good to go eight. Cueto is the first pitcher in Major League Baseball to throw at least seven innings and give up two runs or fewer in his first eight starts since Fernando Valenzuela did so for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. Cueto is the first Red to throw at least eight innings in five straight starts since Tom Browning did so over six starts in August of 1989.”
You may have read Mike Maffie’s column yesterday that analyzed whether it was better for a starting pitcher to be consistent or occasionally hold the opponent to two runs or fewer. Johnny Cueto is providing a rare, glorious have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too answer to that dilemma.
We’re blessed to be witnessing his oversized, consequential pitching. Pitching full of stature.