Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cueto Curries Correction

Occasionally, a man has to spit into the wind several times before he gets really tired of being covered in his own saliva. Johnny Cueto, stud pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, has been beaten up in this space at least a hundred times. Between he and his mound mate, Edinson Volquez, there have been a whole lot of negative adjectives that have been hurled from the FanDome. But it's high time they stopped. Cueto shut down the A-team of the Yankees last night after the Yankees' B-team had won the first game of a double-header. A double-dip loss for the Reds would have been damaging. But Cueto again saved the day and kept the Reds' hopes alive. As that sentence indicated, it wasn't the first time.

There was the game on May 29 against the Braves. The Reds had played a nineteen inning game and a twelve inning game among the previous four games. The bullpen was gassed and Dusty Baker really needed his starter to go deep into the game. Cueto did just that pitching a complete game and lost 2-1. It was a big time performance that his team desperately needed and he was up to it. His performance in that game set up the Reds to win two of three in their next series against their division rival, Milwaukee Brewers.

After beginning the season on the disabled list, Cueto has made nine starts. Eight have been quality starts. He has beaten the Dodgers, the Giants, the Yankees and the Cardinals among his five wins (in seven decisions). Find a slouch in that bunch. In  another game, his team beat the Phillies despite Cueto getting a no-decision. In Cueto's last five starts, he's pitched seven innings or more for a total of 36 innings and has only allowed five runs. Yeah, it is time to give the guy his due.

While perusing Johnny Cueto's numbers, no real alarm bells went off. Yes, the 1.68 ERA before last night's game was half of his FIP of 3.30 and his xFIP 3.52. A lot of that is based on his BABIP which is amazingly low at .220 so far this year. While it has to be admitted that this writer is a novice at looking at such numbers, the observation is beginning to register that BABIP isn't all about luck. Sometimes, a pitcher changes his approach and his contact style changes. Cueto is a case in point. In fact, he has seemed to reinvent himself.

Cueto is striking out and walking people at pretty much the same rate as always. His K/9 sits at 6.2 or just below last year's 6.5. His walk rate is identical to last year's at 2.7. What's really different is what kind of contact he is getting. His line drive percentage is way down from last year's 19.4 percent to this year's 14.5 percent. But what's really interesting is his ground ball rate. The past two years, that figure has been remarkably similar at 41.6 and 41.7 percent. This year, that figure is up to 55.9 percent. That's good for a 1.88 ground ball to fly ball ratio. What's remarkable about that is Cueto's career ratio is one to one on the nose. So he's a different pitcher. And with an infield with Scott Rolen, Paul Janish, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, inducing ground balls is a very good idea.

When Johnny Cueto first came to the big leagues, most of his fastballs were of the four seam variety. Now he only throws his four seam fastball 20.5 percent of the time and he throws a two-seam fastball 45.5 percent of the time. Two years ago, he hardly ever threw that pitch. Thus, it seems that Cueto has reinvented himself and the results are spectacular.

Another thing that struck home while looking at Johnny Cueto's page is his age. It seems that Cueto and Volquez have been around a long time. And indeed, Cueto is in his fourth season and Volquez is already in his  seventh! Both began their careers very young and that is the point that seems to be missed by guys like the Fan. Volquez was pitching in the big leagues at 21 and is only 27. Cueto is only 25 years old. They are really young by pitching standards. As such, we've only begun to see what they can do.

The bottom line here is that it's high time the Fan and others start showing a little patience with young pitchers and their ups and downs with the understanding that promise isn't just a one year thing. Sometimes it takes several years. Johnny Cueto is starting to live up to his talent. For a 25 year old pitcher to reinvent himself and his strategy at such a young age shows a guy who wants to get better at what he does. Johnny Cueto has been fantastic and while there may be a bit of regression over the course of the season, Cueto is a large part of any Reds' hope of competing to win their second straight division title.

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