Reds’ Cueto says he’s baseball’s best pitcher right now
CINCINNATI — An announcer once said of Bob Gibson, "He is the luckiest pitcher in the world. Every time he pitches the other team doesn’t score any runs."
So that must make Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto the modern day Bob Gibson — the Hall of Famer of the St. Louis Cardinals (1959-75). Make that Lucky Johnny Cueto, because when he pitches the other team doesn’t score any runs.
Well, they don’t score more than two runs, that’s for sure. For the ninth consecutive time, all nine starts he has made this year, Cueto held the opposition to two or less runs for more than seven innings Thursday during a three-hit, 5-0 shutout of the San Diego Padres.
Nine straight starts of giving up two or less runs in seven or more innings is something that hasn’t been performed on that little hill in the middle of the field in 105 years — since Harry Krause of the 1909 Philadelphia Athletics did it in 10 consecutive starts.
Cueto, usually reserved and self-effacing, didn’t use the word luck after his performance Thursday and, in fact, when asked if he is the best pitcher in baseball right now, he didn’t throw a changeup. He threw a fastball.
"I would say, yes, definitely yes," Cueto said through translator Tomas Vera. "My numbers have to talk for me. Every time I go on the mound, I do my job. And I do my job to get the best numbers."
And Cueto was not aware of his accomplishment, the two runs or less nine games in a row, not done since 1909. When told, he broke into a wide grin, his smile as bright as the dazzing diamond necklace dangling on top of an ice pack wrapped around his shoulders.
"I did not know that, not even know that was something that was there," he said. "Now that I know I thank God that I’m able to do something that hasn’t been done in more than 100 years."
Everybody wants to explain the inexplicable, like why is Cueto so good, so consistent, so boringly monotonous at knocking down opposition hitters like toy soldiers while wearing his braided and beaded hair down to his shoulders and twisting and turning his back to the batters during his delivery.
"Surprised? No, I’m not surprised," said Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick. "It may sound harsh, but that’s what we expect of him. That’s what he is paid to do."
Said catcher Brayan Pena, "I sound like a broken record because I say the same thing after every start. He just gets better and better and better."
On this day, Cueto gave up only three hits and two walks, striking out eight. No runner reached second base until there were two outs in the ninth — when he walked Will Venable, who took second when the Reds ignored him, but that’s where he remained.
Shortstop Zack Cozart puts Cueto in the Pitching Eiite, where he belongs, by saying, "He needs to get some national attention. I was watching TV the other day and they were talking about Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw and Jose Fernandez and I’m saying, ‘Like, where is Johnny C.?’ He never leaves anything over the plate for anybody to drive, he’s always on the corners.
"Since I’ve been in the big leagues (four years) he is pitching better than anybody I’ve seen."
First-year manager Bryan Price worked with Cueto as his pitching coach until this season and he has seen the metamorphosis of Cueto and why he has become nearly unhittable.
"There are two explanations," said Price. "It is his acute location, not making mistakes in the middle of the plate, and he is pitching his best style of game — the heavy sinker-cutter combination and he has a swing-and-a-miss change-up, a strikeout pitch.
"He makes all those pitches at any time and doesn’t have to be predictable with a fastball. He throws them all ahead in the count or behind in the count."
There is another facet to Cueto’s game that leaps out at Price.
"I’ve talked to Johnny about empty pitches, pitches that are thrown that don’t really serve a purpose, that don’t mean anything — the real high fastball or the slider that misses way outside," Price said. "He has thrown so few of those empty pitches this year, the pitches that don’t serve a purpose. He is around the plate with everything and when he’s not, he is teasing the hitter with a pitch just off the plate or just below the zone or just above the zone.
"There has been talk about the number of innings he might pitch, but he has been so pitch-efficient. He is not going out for the eighth inning at 119 pitches or throwing 135 pitches to go nine innings. That makes it a lot more comfortable to see him out there in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings."
One of the amazing statistics attached to Cueto’s name is the fact that when the hitters are in a hitter’s count, 2-and-0, they are hitting .111 against Cueto.
"It’s the confidence to be able to throw a fastball, sinker, four-seamer, cutter, change-up or a strike slider at any time in the count," said Price. "Guys who have success like Johnny is having are guys who don’t have to give in with a four-seam fastball out over the plate. They’ve been able to manipulate the ball — sink it, cut it, take some speed off or throw a strike with a curveball.
"He gets away from giving in to the hitter, not giving them a decent pitch to hit, a pitch in the area where they want to hit it. He continues to throw his full arsenal into the strike zone on a hitter’s count and it makes a huge difference."
Before Cueto’s latest effort of having the Padres dancing in the dark, Price was asked if Cueto can continue down this seldom-trod path forever and ever, amen.
"I don’t want to take it for granted that he is going to throw seven to nine innings of spotless baseball every single time out there," Price said. "However, he is creating that environment for all of us, in that he has been so good, so consistent, that you kind of come to expect it. But taking the ball out there for seven or eight innings every time in his first nine starts is spectacular, something I’ve never been part of or seen."
After Cueto moved to 4-2 (he has had two wins blown by the bullpen) and lowered his league-leading earned run average to 1.25, Price said, "There have been games where he has been sharper, but he just kept making pitches.
"I don’t know what else I can say about Johnny. He is just really feeling it right now. The thing that is most amazing is the fact every pitch Johnny throws has a consequence with it. He doesn’t get caught up in the score — 1-0, 1-1, 2-2, 0-0 — it doesn’t matter, he just attacks the hitter with great confidence. I haven’t seen him back down to a hitter all year."
Price shook his head and tried to wrap it all up in one tidy little package about Cueto.
"Every facet of his game seems to be right where it needs to be to have a sensational start to the season," he said.