At 5-foot-11, 220 pounds or so, Johnny Cueto is hardly your prototypical major league right-hander. Baseball men prefer their pitchers -- especially right-handers -- to be taller. Right-handers under 6 feet are often dismissed with the belief that they're less durable and often moved to the bullpen. The Los Angeles Dodgers once had a short right-hander who, like Cueto, hailed from the Dominican Republic. After a dominant rookie season as a relief pitcher, the Dodgers traded Pedro Martinez, thinking he'd never last as a starter.
Cueto's motion from the windup, where he twists around with his front left leg actually facing second base at the back of the turn, resembles that of the Cuban great Luis Tiant, another short (listed at 6 feet), somewhat pudgy right-hander with an assortment of pitches that baffled and confused batters. Maybe the twist helps throw off batters or maybe it's just a little flair. Either way, it's a signature image for Cueto in this day of largely lookalike mechanics.
Cueto has been a good pitcher in the past, good enough to win 19 games and finish fourth in the 2012 Cy Young voting. This season, however, he's taken his game to a new level, as we saw on Thursday afternoon with a dominant three-hit shutout of the Padres, improving his season numbers to 4-2 with a 1.25 ERA through nine starts. Tiant loved his postgame cigars and Cueto definitely deserved one after this effort.
With a little run support he could easily be 9-0 -- he's pitched at least seven innings each start and hasn't allowed more than two runs in a game. His two "losses" were 2-1 and 1-0. He had another no-decision when he pitched eight scoreless innings. He's the best -- or at least the hottest -- pitcher in baseball right now. And he said so after the game.
"I would say yes because the numbers talk and my numbers are going to talk for me," Cueto said.
Hey, it's hard to disagree. Opponents are hitting .135 against him with a .194 on-base percentage. He's the first starter to pitch at least seven innings and allow two runs or fewer in each of his first nine starts since Harry Krause of the 1909 Philadelphia Athletics. His three complete games are more than any other team in the majors. Only three pitchers have ever had an ERA below 1.50 and an opponents' batting average below .150 through nine starts -- Cueto, Don Sutton in 1972 and Luis Tiant in 1968.
OK, you don't get a 1.25 ERA without a little luck or good sequencing involved. Cueto has allowed 10 runs all season -- seven of those on home runs (actually, eight on home runs, since one was a two-run homer following a base hit). That means he's allowed 25 other hits and 18 walks and only two of those 43 baserunners have scored, a strand rate of nearly 100 percent that will be impossible to maintain -- opponents are 2-for-27 with runners in scoring position against him. His overall BABIP is .160, best among major league starters and 52 points better than the Reds' No. 2 starter, Alfredo Simon. (Considering Mike Leake, another Reds starter, is also in the top 10, it seems the Reds are playing some pretty slick defense.)
But Cueto has made real improvements, even from his stellar 2012 season. That year, he had a strikeout rate of 19.1 percent -- he had 170 in 212 innings. This year, he has 76 strikeouts in 72 innings, with a 28.8 percent K rate. His rate of swings-and-misses has increased about 4 percent, a testament to his improved ability to miss bats.
One reason for this is an improved cutter that Cueto started throwing a lot more in 2013. When he first reached the majors in 2008, Cueto was primarily a fastball/slider pitcher and he had a 4.61 ERA his first two seasons while giving up 53 home runs. He first introduced the cutter in 2010 and then started using his changeup more often in 2012. After throwing the cutter about 6 percent of the time in 2012 he threw it about 20 percent last season (although he made just 11 starts due to a lat injury, a huge disappointment since he had to leave his 2012 playoff start after eight pitches because of back spasms).
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.
The cutter has also apparently helped make his changeup more effective. In 2012, Cueto had a strikeout rate of 23.2 percent on his change. It was 33.9 percent last year and is at 39.1 percent this year as batters are hitting .049 against it. Fastball, cutter, changeup, slider: Four pitches of different speeds and movement, all thrown with command and inducing a high groundball rate (Cueto is 16th among starting pitchers in groundball percentage). That's a pretty sweet combination.
To top it off, Cueto is about the most difficult pitcher in the game to run on. Baserunners haven't even attempted a stolen base against him this year after going 4-for-19 over the previous three years.
Maybe he's not going to finish with a 1.25 ERA, but he's in the midst of a historic run.
The Reds have never had a Cy Young winner. That may finally change.