Boys will be boys, so the day after Johnny Cueto pitches, Cincinnati Reds relievers have been known to emulate his motion during idle moments in the bullpen or the outfield. They're usually well-rested after Cueto's outings, anyway. And in the absence of sprouting dreadlocks in his honor, copying his delivery is the sincerest form of flattery they can muster.
The frivolity rarely lasts long. Professional pitchers are taught that the more compact the windup and the less wasted movement, the better. Tim Lincecum is one of a kind, Clayton Kershaw unfolds in stages and Max Scherzer invited skepticism for his herky-jerky delivery early in his pro career. But the landscape is generally replete with pitchers who try to keep things simple in the quest to throw consistently on a downhill plane.
Pitchers are told that it's imperative to be able to repeat their deliveries. Then along comes Cueto, whose motion is unrepeatable and borderline indescribable. It's best filed under the category of, "Kids, please don't try this at home."
"I've messed around with it in the bullpen," said Reds reliever Sam LeCure, "but it's tough to keep your balance the way he does. If you're not used to it, it can get you out of whack a little bit. I'll try it once or twice and I'll say, 'There's no way I could revamp my mechanics to do that.'"
Cueto -- contortionist, master corner painter and early National League Cy Young Award candidate -- is making waves primarily because of what happens after the ball leaves his hand. Even after getting knocked around by Washington in his most recent outing, he leads big league starters in strikeouts (82), WHIP (0.74) and WAR (2.8) and is third in the league in ERA (1.86) behind Jeff Samardzija and Adam Wainwright. With his next start on tap Monday at Dodger Stadium, he's flourishing despite pitching half his games in a hitter-happy venue at Great American Ball Park.
Ask the people who watch Cueto every day, and they'll tell you his success is the product of surprising athleticism, an ability to dot the corners with five pitches (fastball, slider, curveball, cutter and change) and a knack for stifling the running game more efficiently than any pitcher in the majors.
But Cueto is also a self-improvement buff who has spent years refining a delivery that seemed awkward at first, then grew comfortable and is now a major part of his identity. His offbeat motion has placed him in a small fraternity with Luis Tiant, Fernando Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo and Nuke LaLoosh among pitchers who bring old-time entertainment value to the proceedings and aren't averse to taking some detours on their way to the finish line. The results are a gratifying payoff to all the time and sweat Cueto invested in refining his new claim to fame.
"Let me tell you this: It wasn't easy to start doing it," Cueto said through interpreter Tomas Vera. "It took me a lot of work. I got criticized and my knee used to hurt at the beginning. But now I've got it."
All about timing
After beginning his windup, Cueto elevates his left leg into a high tuck, then rotates his torso until he's facing left-center field and the batter sees the No. 47. (To watch Cueto's delivery in slow motion, click here.) Upon reaching the apex of his delivery, he uncoils and comes at hitters as a 5-foot-11, 215-pound man of mystery. In the process, he strips hitters of the timing mechanism they typically rely upon before springing into action.
"As a hitter, it's key to know when you're going to load based on when you think the ball is coming. With guys like that, you try to do it in the on-deck circle," said Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg, who has experience at this sort of thing from his days as a 10-time All-Star and budding Hall of Famer with the Cubs. Sandberg hit a career .294 (20-for-68) against Valenzuela and .300 (6-for-20) against Gene Garber, another pitcher who liked to do the twist, so his attention to detail paid dividends.
Cueto's delivery is a challenge for his battery mate as well. Brayan Pena, who has emerged as Cueto's primary catcher in his first season with the Reds, did several days of reconnaissance work from a squatting position in spring training before deciphering the best way to spot the ball as it left Cueto's hand. He refrains from sharing his insights out of fear that he'll provide aid and comfort to opposing hitters.
Pena was asked if this is a variation on the old "If I told you, I'd have to kill you" joke.
"No, not me," Pena said with a laugh. "If I told you, Johnny would kill both of us."
The genesis for Cueto's revamp came in the spring of 2010, after he had gone 11-11 with a 4.41 ERA for the Reds. He had a habit of spinning off the mound and flying open with his left side so that his hip turned toward first base like a swinging gate. As a result, his arm dragged and he threw a lot of what Cincinnati manager Bryan Price calls "empty pitches." Price, then in his first year as Reds pitching coach, urged Cueto to incorporate a bigger hip turn into his motion to keep his front side closed, and he had a receptive pupil.
"I'm a person who always likes to try new things," Cueto said. "There are a lot of veteran hitters in the game who know how to pick up what kind of pitch you're going to throw, so you have to make adjustments to avoid that. It was a way to hide [the ball] and give them less time to pick from my glove what I was trying to throw."
Cueto's experimentation began in the visiting bullpen at Sun Life Stadium in Miami in the spring of 2010, at which point he felt comfortable enough to take his new approach into a game. The plan quickly changed when he lost his balance in an early start, over-rotated and still recovered to throw a strike. The sequence sent a murmur through the crowd and planted a seed in Cueto's mind.
"He came to the bullpen between starts and said, 'I think this may make it hard for hitters to see my ball,'" Price said. "He wanted to try it and see if he could be efficient with it, and I told him, 'There have to be certain principles and disciplines that go with it.' We've had to do a few things to modify it to where it wasn't a counterproductive delivery."
Cueto made his biggest headlines in 2010 by laying a karate kick on St. Louis catcher Jason LaRue during a bench-clearing brawl, but his ERA fell from 4.41 to 3.64 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved as he gradually began to master his new toy. He finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award balloting in 2012, and he has taken his game to another level through his first 10 starts this season.
What makes the delivery work?
These four things certainly help:
(1) Cueto initially threw with his right foot parallel to the rubber, but the stress on his knee from all that twisting with his upper half necessitated some changes for the sake of his health. He spent a lot of time experimenting with the position of his right foot, and now his heel is angled to the rubber when he begins his windup.
(2) It's imperative for any pitcher to focus on the target before he begins his delivery to home plate. For a while Cueto had problems keeping his head still and it would drift toward his right shoulder, but with time he has become conditioned to keeping his chin tucked inside his left shoulder. When his body turns, his eyes are instantly locked in on the catcher's mitt.
(3) In the fraction of a second before the ball leaves Cueto's hand, he flashes his glove in the hitter's sight line, adding another piece of deception to the mix.
"It's a distraction like you'll see with a magician," said Chris Welsh, a member of the Reds' broadcast team and a former big league pitcher. "He's pulling the table cloth, and there's the rabbit."
(4) Proper tempo is vital. With all those moving parts and gyrations, it's hard to make all the pieces fit seamlessly in an assembly line of pitching menace. Cueto made it work by endless hours of repetition and laborious practice. He also has the balance of a gymnast walking the beam.
"Johnny's not like an Olympic athlete in terms of body type," Price said, "but he's an Olympic-quality baseball player. The things he does beyond throwing the ball are so top of the line. Like holding runners, or his move to first base, or seeing a hitter's vulnerability and attacking it.
"He's an excellent student of the game. He'll look at one of our pitchers and say, 'I think he's tipping pitches -- I just called the last 10 pitches he threw.' He has great baseball instincts."
El Tiante redux
Pena grew up in Cuba, so he's familiar with the achievements of the great Luis Tiant, who won 229 career games and was beloved by teammates for his high-pitched voice, sense of humor and competitive spirit.
Pena was 8 months old when Tiant made his final major league appearance with the California Angels in September 1982, so he never actually saw his countryman pitch. But he has watched enough old video clips to make comparisons between Tiant and Cueto.
"They're similar, but I think Johnny is a little bit faster," Pena said. "Luis took his time. Johnny goes back and does it in one motion."
For all the Tiant comparisons, Price thinks Cueto is just as reminiscent of Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax, pitchers who learned their craft at a time when everyone wasn't stamped in the same cookie-cutter mold. Some pitching connoisseurs contend that the shift away from more natural, athletic deliveries toward a more mechanical, linear assembly line of motions has been a contributing factor to the recent spate of arm injuries in baseball.
The obvious question, in Cueto's case, is whether the motion that makes him so effective ultimately increases the chances of him going on the shelf. Cueto has had a history of nagging shoulder injuries. Does all that twisting and turning make him a candidate to break down physically?
"I've been asked that question a lot," Price said. "Do I feel like it causes extra stress on his shoulder? It's the same exact stress he felt in 2008 or '09 or '10 when he would fly open and his arm would come late. I don't think he's healthier because of the over-rotation now. And I've never felt like he's at a higher risk because of it. It's the exact same stress."
The good news is, Luis Tiant pitched 19 seasons in the majors and logged almost 3,500 innings before retiring at age 41. But if he has any trade secrets to share with Cueto, he has yet to pass them along.
The two pitchers spoke briefly by phone in the Cincinnati clubhouse a couple of years ago before the connection cut out and their conversation ended. That brief chat marks the extent of the interaction between the former Cleveland and Boston ace and the young right-hander who's building such an impressive résumé in Cincinnati.
How much should that matter in the big picture? In baseball's cosmic timeline, actions trump words for two pitchers who are linked by ingenuity and flair. Whenever Tiant switches on the TV and happens upon a Reds game, you'd like to think that he sees Johnny Cueto spinning toward the outfield before starting his journey plate-ward and feels a surge of memories. And El Tiante takes a puff on a big, fat stogie and smiles.