On Thursday night in Philadelphia, Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto will attempt to become the first pitcher in the majors to reach 17 wins this year. Cueto has never made an All-Star team, has never been named on a single Cy Young award ballot, and currently holds the title of “Best Pitcher America Doesn’t Know.”
Okay, I just bestowed that title on him, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Cueto leads the National League in ERA (2.44), ERA+ (174) and, obviously, wins (16, tied with Washington’s Gio Gonzalez). When Cueto steps onto the national stage this October, as seems likely, a lot of fans are going to wonder about Cincinnati’s ace: “Who is this guy? Where did he come from?”
Cueto did not come out of nowhere like it may seem, but few expected the fireworks he has provided over the past two seasons. He was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, and while Cueto was considered to have some potential, there was concern that his size (5-foot-10) would cause durability issues, or possibly force him into a relief role.
Over the next three years, Cueto moved steadily up the Reds’ organizational ladder, but he was rarely mentioned in the same breath with Homer Bailey, a former No. 1 pick who was considered a can’t-miss prospect. When 2008 rolled around, however, it was Cueto and not Bailey who surprised everyone by making the Reds’ Opening Day rotation.
Reviews were mixed after Cueto went 20-25 with a 4.61 ERA in his first two big-league seasons. His peripheral numbers provided cause for concern (4.90 and 4.69 FIP in those campaigns), he walked too many people, and gave up too many homers. In 2010, however, something clicked, as Cueto’s numbers improved across the board. No one could have predicted what we'd see next.
Since Opening Day 2011, Cueto has been nothing short of lights out: He has gone 25-11 with a 2.38 ERA and 173 ERA+. How did that happen? Three reasons, primarily:
1. At some point around 2010, Cueto really began to take his conditioning more seriously. He began running every day, and quickly developed a reputation for being the hardest-working pitcher on the staff. The baby fat started to drop off, and Cueto’s durability improved.
2. Over the past two seasons, Cueto has relied upon his changeup more often, with great success. In the minors, former Reds ace Mario Soto taught Cueto the changeup, but in his first couple of big league seasons, Cueto really didn’t throw it very often, just 6.7 percent of the time during his rookie season. This year, Cueto is throwing the change 17.9 percent of the time, and he’s throwing it consistently for strikes.
3. Before last season, Cueto adopted a funky delivery, wherein he actually turns his back to the hitter during the windup. Pitching coach Bryan Price had detected a flaw in Cueto’s delivery in which his front leg would open up before he set it down. They began working together to correct that, and Cueto immediately enjoyed the deception that his new delivery provided. Plus, it’s just flat-out fun to watch.
What has been most astounding about Cueto’s success has been the fact that he isn’t surrendering homers at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, a noted longball factory. If you can believe it, Cueto allows fewer homeruns per nine innings (0.48) than every other starter in the National League save one. That’s a vast improvement over the home run rate he displayed in his first two big-league seasons (2008: 1.5 HR/9; 2009: 1.3 HR/9).
This is true even though Cueto doesn’t strike out as many hitters as other top starters; his K/9 rate of 7.2 ranks just 30th among qualified starters in the NL alone. Of course, it helps that Cueto doesn’t walk very many batters. This season, Cueto is walking just 1.96 hitters per nine innings, a career-best mark.
Excellent control, a deceptive delivery, the ability to keep the ball in the ballpark and on the ground, a great work ethic: These are the ingredients of an ace, no? Even better, Cueto is just 26, with room for improvement. That’s not too bad considering he’s already one of the best pitchers in the majors.
The question now is: When will America notice?