Updating the Top 100: Johnny Cueto

Striving past the effects of systemic media neglect. - Andy Lyons

All better recognize: Cincy got an ace.

Johnny Cueto, for one reason or another, was relatively unheralded in the minor leagues. He was signed out of the Dominican Republic, struggled for a year as a raw 19-year-old, then shot through the minors. Consider: Cueto began 2006 in Dayton at age 20, rose all the way to Louisville by the end of the following season, and was the team's #3 starter in 2008. So the point is that Cueto broke through into the minors at a young age, was very good in the minors, had really good stuff, and while he wasn't amazing from Day 1, has been at least serviceable in every year he's pitched. And now has back-to-back very strong seasons.

I bring up that backstory as a simple plot device in which I stir up the rage and resentment that comes with your inferiority complex that comes with your being a Reds fan. Baseball-reference.com lists ten player comps for Cueto, as of each player's age-26 season, and three of them are contemporaries or near-contemporaries. And all three have been greeted with significantly more pomp and praise than has our local ace: Josh Beckett, Cole Hamels, and Justin Verlander. Through age 26, Cueto has 60 wins, 46 losses, 904 innings pitched, and a 117 ERA+. The average totals through the same career point for the aforementioned three: 61 W, 44 L, 866 IP, 116 ERA+. The Reds have themselves a quality young pitcher.

2011 was Cueto's breakout year, jumping from a modest 3.64 ERA to an eye-popping 2.31. The knocks, such as they were, were Cueto's possible fragility (he made just 24 starts) and his luck (he only had a 6.0 K/9 rate and an improbable BABIP against of .254). This year, Cueto made every start and pitched a career high 217 innings before ironically lasting just 8 pitches into the postseason. On the other hand, the BABIP blip was proven true, as Cueto's rate bounced back to a more normal .299. He led the league in ERA+ anyway, in part by striking out a healthy 7.1 batters per nine innings.

If you want encouragement, it's here: Johnny Cueto has always possessed adequate control, but it's gotten better every single year, as measured by walks-per-nine. Keeps the ball in the yard, too: 23 total homers over the last two seasons, no small feat in the Great American.

The three contemporary aces listed above serve as a cautionary tale of sorts, in the way that all pitchers do. One is currently assumed to be the planet's best pitcher; another is radioactive. Cueto will continue his career somewhere in between, with absolutely nothing guaranteed. For the time being, Reds fans are on their way to having their first true ace since the early 1990s.

One other note, quickly, regarding Cueto's bat. In this age of comprehensive baseball statistics, Cueto's numbers will likely always be depressed by the fact that he is one of the very worst hitters to be routinely penciled into the lineup (no one, by my view, had more PA this year with a worse OPS+). It is what it is, as they say. It'd be great if Cueto had, say, Arroyo's bat, but it's not his thing. Is it then remarkable or not that Cueto led the NL in sacrifice hits this year? He's got some dexterity, and it's apparently better than ever letting him swing away. One of the great many joys of baseball, again.

These player capsules are fueled by the numbers, but inspired by the qualitative aspects of each player. We hear and read and think frequently about the team's leaders, and the work ethic and commitment to excellence each brings. Perhaps because of a language barrier, we don't see quite as many stories in the same vein about Johnny Cueto. As point of contrast, however, I'm recalling two data points from the final week or two in the 2012 season. One, Cueto's obvious disappointment at not winning his 20th game, and two, the tears in his eyes as he walked off the mound in Game 1 of the NLDS. I suspect we'll see a very hungry pitcher in 2013.

Johnny Cueto now has back-to-back seasons with an ERA+ over 150. He leaps from #246 to #153 on the all-time list.

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