We all know that Johnny Cueto was fantastic last year. He finished as the runner-up in the Cy Young Award balloting. Cueto’s season line of 20 Wins, 9 Losses, 2.25 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 242 strikeouts in 243.2 innings was not good enough to win the award in 2014, but it was plenty good enough to win the Cy Young most seasons. Unfortunately Cueto suffered the bad luck of running into the Dodgers buzzsaw named Clayton Kershaw who produced a 21-3 record, 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 239 strikeouts in 198 innings.

It is not the first great season Cueto has had. I thought he should have won the Cy Young in 2012, which was the year knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the Mets took home the hardware. Cueto’s stats that year (19-9, 2.78 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 170 Ks in 217 innings) were not quite as good as Dickey’s (20-6, 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 230 Ks in 233.2 innings) but Cueto faced the disadvantage of pitching half his games in a ballpark that is much less friendly to pitchers than Dickey’s home field. That notion was reflected in their ERA+ scores, which is a form of ERA that is adjusted for the pitcher’s league and ballpark. 100 is a league average ERA+ with higher scores being better. Dickey’s ERA+ in 2012 was 139 while Cueto’s was 148 — a clear advantage for our guy. Cueto actually came in 4th in the balloting that year behind Dickey, Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez of the Nationals. For the record, Cueto’s ERA+ last year was even better at 160 but Kershaw’s was a whopping 197!

I thought it would be interesting to compare Cueto’s fantastic 2014 season to the best seasons in franchise history. I would like to know just how historic Cueto’s epic season was among the well over 100 years of Cincinnati baseball. So let’s dig into some numbers to find out…

The first thing I realized was that I should exclude the Dead Ball Era prior to 1920. Pitchers in those days would throw 300 or 400 innings with an ERA below 2.00 on a regular basis. For example, check out the 1879 season for Will “Whoop-La” White of the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds only played 81 games in those days, White started 75 games and completed every single one of them. White was the only pitcher on the team but four position players pitched a total of 46 innings. White threw 680 innings and finished with a 43-31 record and a 1.99 ERA. He accumulated only 232 strikeouts in all those innings, but foul balls didn’t even count as strikes back then. The reason his ERA was so good was because he gave up 404 runs but only 150 of them were earned! I guess teams made a lot of errors back before baseball gloves were invented. White gave up only 10 home runs in those 680 innings and I bet most of them were of the inside-the-park variety. Even though White’s ERA was only 1.99 that season his 120 ERA+ was not outstanding because almost all pitchers had really low ERAs, proving that dead ball stats simply do not translate to the modern era. White did go on to have a 171 ERA+ season in 1882 with a 1.54 ERA in 480 innings. Coincidentally, Johnny Cueto also put up a 171 ERA+ season. He did it in 2011, when he went 9-5 with a 2.31 ERA in 154 innings.

Here are the best seasons by ERA+ for Reds pitchers in the Live Ball Era (since 1920):

ERA+ Year Pitcher
1 201 1923 Dolf Luque
2 171 2011 Johnny Cueto
3 170 1939 Bucky Walters
4 168 1947 Ewell Blackwell
5 168 1977 Tom Seaver
6 162 1972 Gary Nolan
7 162 1993 Jose Rijo
8 161 1941 Elmer Riddle
9 160 2014 Johnny Cueto
Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Dolf Luque is a member of the Reds’ Hall of Fame. He was known for his curveball and his temper. He pitched two games in relief during the Reds’ victory over the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series. Luque was a well above average pitcher for many years, but that 1923 season was the hallmark of his career. He went 27-8 that year with a 1.93 ERA in 322 innings. He led the league in both Wins and ERA. Clearly the best season any Reds’ pitcher ever had. Luque was a blue-eyed caucasian player from Cuba, one of several Cubans who were allowed to play in the major leagues in an era when non-whites were not welcome.

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

In 1939 Bucky Walters led the league in all these categories: 27 Wins, 2.29 ERA, 31 Complete Games, 319 Innings Pitched, 137 Strikeouts, 1.125 WHIP and 170 ERA+. He led the league in Ks despite striking out less than 4 batters per game, quite a different world than we live in now. The Reds made it to the World Series but were swept by the Yankees. Walters won the pitching Triple Crown and the National League MVP Award that year in the days before the Cy Young Award. In fact three Reds finished in the top four of the MVP voting that year. Johnny Mize of the Cardinals came in second, Reds pitcher Paul Derringer came in third, and Reds first baseman Frank McCormick came in fourth. Walters was the second of three consecutive Reds to win the MVP Award from 1938-1940. Ernie Lombardi won it in 1938 and Frank McCormick in 1940. Walters played the first four years of his major league career as a third baseman before switching to pitching in 1934. Walters led the Reds to the World Series again in 1940 and they beat the Tigers in seven games, with Walters becoming the first pitcher to hit a WS home run in 14 years. Like Mike Leake, he was sometimes used as a pinch hitter. Walters is a member of the Reds Hall of Fame and has received extensive consideration for the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. He was a six time All Star

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

In 1947 Ewell Blackwell led the league with 22 Wins and 193 Strikeouts. He put up a 2.47 ERA across 273 innings. He finished second in the MVP balloting behind Bob Elliott of the Boston Braves. During that stellar 1947 year he threw a no-hitter against the Braves and in his next game took a no-hitter into the 9th inning before it was broken up, nearly matching teammate Johnny Vandermeer’s amazing feat of back-to-back no-hitters. Blackwell’s sidearm delivery gave him the nickname “The Whip”. He was the Randy Johnson of his day. He was tall (6’6″), skinny and threw very hard from an unusual sidearm angle that intimidated hitters. He made six consecutive All Star teams from 1946-1951. Blackwell is an inductee of the Reds Hall of Fame.

tom-seaver

In 1977 the Reds traded for Tom Seaver mid-season and he went on to pitch 165 innings for the Reds with a fantastic 168 ERA+. Those innings came after he had already pitched 96 innings for the Mets that year. His combined ERA+ for the season was “only” 149. In 1977 Seaver was still in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. He made 12 All Star teams. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award with the Mets in 1967 and also won three Cy Young Awards as a Met. He threw his only no-hitter in 1978 with the Reds.  He is the only pitcher to ever strike out 10 consecutive batters. His 3640 strikeouts rank him third on the all time list.

nolan

In 1972 Gary Nolan had the best season of his injury-marred career. He went 15-5 with a 1.99 ERA and 162 ERA+. He tied with Reds reliever Clay Carrol for 5th in the Cy Young balloting and made his only All Star team. The Reds lost to the Athletics in the World Series that year. Nolan missed most of the next two seasons before returning for the 1975 campaign and helped lead the Reds to back-to-back world championships. Nolan broke into the majors when he was only 18 years old and struck out Willie Mays four times in one game as a rookie. He is in the Reds Hall of Fame.

Rijo

Jose Rijo delivered an amazing 1993 season. His 162 ERA+ was helped by his 14-9 record and 2.48 ERA. He led the league by striking out 227 batters in 257 innings. He finished 5th in the Cy Young voting behind Greg Maddux. John Burkett also finished ahead of Rijo even though he had a mediocre 107 ERA+. Rijo did not make the All Star team in 1993 but did the following year and it was the only All Star selection of his career. How does a guy who had a 138 ERA+ and a 2.83 ERA across 10 seasons with the Reds and two top-5 Cy Young seasons only make one All Star team? Rijo won two of the four games in the 1990 World Series sweep of the Athletics, including a 2-hitter in the finale to garner WS MVP honors. Like Nolan, Rijo began his major league career at the young age of 18, and in fact was the youngest player in baseball at the time. Due to multiple arm surgeries Rijo missed five seasons and returned to pitch in 2001 after having already received votes for the Hall of Fame. Rijo was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2005.

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Elmer Riddle went 19-4 with a 2.24 ERA during the 1941 season just before the United States entered World War II. He led the league in ERA and ERA+ that year. He later led the league in Wins in 1943 with 21. The bulk of his career was played during the war. He came in 5th in MVP balloting in 1941 behind winner Dolph Camilli, a slugging first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a member of the 1940 Reds world championship club. He made one All Star team in 1948 with the Pirates. His brother Johnny was a major league catcher whose career spanned 19 years but he only played 98 total games in that span. Elmer is the only pitcher on this list of great Reds ERA+ seasons who is not in the Reds Hall of Fame (other than Cueto, who certainly will be inducted some day).

So to get back to Johnny Cueto’s place on the list of the greatest seasons in Reds pitching history, it looks like Cueto has two of the top 10 campaigns. The 2011 season was only 156 innings, so it technically might not count if you insist on meeting the one inning per game played by the team threshold. Seaver’s great Reds season also comes with an asterisk because he pitched less effectively for the Mets that same year. Riddle’s marquee campaign came during the war and Luquee’s came at the very transition from dead ball era to live ball era. So it is fair to rank Cueto’s 2014 season as one of the top 5 seasons by a Reds pitcher ever.

Cueto’s career ERA+ of 123 is the 3rd best by any Red behind Jose Rijo’s 138 and Bucky Walters’ 124 if you consider only their time as Reds. But if you consider their entire careers they fall behind Cueto. By those standards it makes some sense to declare that Cueto has had a better career as a Red than any other pitcher in history thus far. If Cueto continues to pitch as well as he has the last four years he could pull away from the pack considerably. He is very likely to cement his place in the record book as the most effective pitcher in Reds history before he leaves the Reds as a free agent after this 2015 season. Others have pitched longer for the Reds and won more games, and some have had stellar careers before or after pitching in Cincinnati, but only Rijo and Walters have out-shined the rest of the league to the same degree that Johnny Cueto has been able to do as a Red.

10 Responses

  1. Michael Smith

    The numbers back what we saw all season. Hope he has another stellar year before he leaves.

  2. cfd3000

    Unfairly I’m sure I still think of Cueto as relatively fragile. Here’s hoping he is healthy all year and posts another set of astounding numbers.

  3. Steve Mancuso

    Great post, Nick.

    That picture of Gary Nolan’s baseball card made me look through my collection. I’ve got Nolan cards from 1968, 1970 and 1971 but not that one.

    • WVRedlegs

      Those are the years of mine too. About 15 years ago I found a box of old cards of mine at my parents house. It was only a fraction of what I had as a kid. The cards were from 1969-1975. I had a near complete set for 1974 and 1975 that I have completed. I need to upgrade some cards in ’75 though. I am wanting to work on 1970 and 1971 to complete, but I need many in those 2 years.
      I have heard that Dean’s Cards in Cincinnati is good place to look, and look at online too. Do you know anything about them?

      • concepcion13

        If you’re looking to buy on-line, I’d recommend comc.com. I find their prices better than Dean’s & I’ve always been happy with my purchases from comc (which stand for Check Out My Cards). Aside from price, the feature I like best is every card is scanned, front and back. (And FWIW, the Nolan card pictured is the 1969 Topps.)

      • VaRedsFan

        you can find most any card in any condition on ebay. The black bordered 1971’s are tough to find in good condition and thus command a premium.

        You have a great mom if she didn’t throw out your baseball cards!!!..lol

  4. WVRedlegs

    From 2010-2014, those five seasons may be the best 5 season span of any Reds pitcher. He was 65-32 in those years and missed the equivalent of a whole season with his injuries in 2013 and 2011. Even in 2011 and 2013 he was stellar. I would think that the Reds budgets in 2016-2020 could afford to have 2 pitchers making $20M+ and 3 making pre-arb. low dough.
    The Reds have got to find a way to trade Brandon Phillips and then parlay his salary money into an extension for Cueto. They traded Latos and his salary, let Leake walk after 2015, and then trade BP some how, some way.
    Byrd, Pena and Schumaker, and possibly Cozart, will be gone after 2015 and replaced by rookies making the minimum. There is some savings in the budget going from 2015 to 2016 and beyond that could be used to re-sign Cueto. That is if they can get him on Lester money and not Scherzer money.

    • Kevin J. Brown

      Castellini’s group brought the Reds for $270 million in 2006. According to a recent Forbes article, they are now worth $885 million.

      If the Reds want to keep Cueto they can offer competitive money though they surely can’t outbid the big shots once he hits FA. Therefore, they should do whatever is necessary to sign him to an extension before Opening Day.

  5. redsfan06

    Johnny Bench was asked to define what playing in pain was and answered, “Watching Gary Nolan pitch.”

    Nolan had complained about shoulder pain and the Reds sent him for x-rays several times, all of which came up negative. Then one time, the x-ray tech took pictures from a different angle than usual and they revealed a bone spur that looked like a 2 inch long spike. He missed most of 1973 and all of 1974 with the operation. He came back to have two pretty good years in 1975-76, although they said he wasn’t the same pitcher.

    With Nolan and Gullet, the Reds had the potential to have two dominant starters at the top of the rotation except they couldn’t keep either healthy.