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.

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.

Join the conversation! 14 Comments

  1. One of the mantras of (the Boston Celtics basketball) Bill Russell was that he would rather be good than lucky because the good make their own luck. Cueto is in one of those zones right now. Even “bad luck” things like the game opening infield single by the Pads this week don’t come back to haunt him. Guys who consistently break the numbers set themselves apart as very special, let’s hope Cueto continues to do the same.

  2. Funny, ToddAlmighty just wrote a really nice post about Cueto’s FIP in the recap thread. Would be a much better fit in here.

  3. It’s all great except for the “play attention” instead of “pay attention”, unless that was intentional, and if so, play on!

  4. Another nice article about Johnny Cueto’s pitch mix by Shane Ryan (Grantland). Another discussion of the Cy Young race by Cliff Corcoran (Sports Illustrated) that has Cueto strongly in front in the NL, written before the San Deigo start.

  5. As long as Mike Matheny is managing the NL All Star team, there’s no way Cueto gets the start….unless Matheny is worried that denying Cueto the start will A) Give Cueto even more fuel to raise his game; B) Be so controversial it would become a distraction for Matheny.

    Mark my words: if Greinke continues to have 3 or 4 more Wins than Cueto and his and Cueto’s numbers stay about where they are, Matheny will give the start to Greinke. And MLB won’t mind because they would like controversy to drive interest, and Greinke is a Dodger.

    • I wouldn’t rule out that Matheny treats Cueto fairly. Matheny is his own man and may be looking for ways to differentiate himself from the worst aspects of LaRussa and putting the Cueto/Phillips business behind him. You may be proven right, but I don’t think it’s automatic.

      • Yes and it appears that Mr Baseball is now officially a Diamondback which should diminish his influence in this matter:

        .@Dbacks name 2014 Hall of Fame inductee and 53-year baseball veteran Tony La Russa as Chief Baseball Officer…will be introduced at 2 p.m.— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) May 17, 2014

        • I’ll be highly suspicious if Bronson Arroyo makes the ASG and not Johnny Cueto!

        • I think Cueto-dislike goes much deeper than LaRussa in St.Louis. And that fan base seems to honestly believe Cueto ended Jason LaRue’s career.

  6. Here’s a thought to consider, the psychology of umpiring. I might add a reason for Cueto’s high called 3rd strike rate (aside from the analysis done above, which I think is spot on) and that is Cueto has established himself as a legitimate ace. Umpires have consistently seen him pitch well and they could be more likely to call borderline pitches in his favor. Perhaps he has earned a sort of “street cred” that takes a few seasons to earn. I would be interested to see if the aces out there (Price, Kershaw, Darvish, etc) have higher called 3rd strike rates than average pitchers. It’s just something to consider.

    • You might not be entirely off base, but it would seem almost impossible to prove with numbers. I’m sure the guys you listed do have higher than average called strike rates just because they’re all well above average hitters You’d really have to sit down and crunch a lot of numbers looking at pitch tracking and even then there would always be some variance from umpire to umpire. I’m sure it happens to a degree, but probably not enough to swing any stats. We’ve heard the same thing about great hitters getting a slightly larger strike zone over the years.

  7. He is in his prime and at the same time his baseball intelligence has matured.

  8. I hate to throw cold water on this subject. But Cueto and Chapman are the best trade bait the a Reds have to acquire an outfielder who can hit and prospects. If we can’t sign them we need to move them now.

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About Steve Mancuso

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky's Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve's thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.

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Cuetomania