For a St. Louis Cardinals fan, saying something nice about Johnny Cueto, who in a 2010 brawl literally kicked Jason LaRue out of baseball, is possibly more difficult than complimenting Don Denkinger. (At least Denkinger never meant to hurt anyone.) Still, with Cueto helping the Cincinnati Reds to a National League Central-leading 76-50 record, I'll say it: Cueto is one of the best pitchers in the league this year and should be considered for the Cy Young.
That's less a personal opinion than a fact. Though he didn't pitch quite as well Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies -- allowing two runs in five innings, while issuing three walks in a game the Reds would lose 4-3 in 11 innings -- as he has for most of the year, Cueto entered the game with a 2.44 ERA, the best in the National League. Not bad for a guy who starts half his games in one of the majors' homer-happiest parks.
Somehow, he's keeping the ball on the ground, as his uncannily low 6.2 percent home run/fly ball ratio attests. But his third consecutive year with a single-digit homer-to-fly rate just might be due to something in his control, such as inducing weak contact. That's in no small part because of an increased reliance on his changeup, which he's featuring twice as often as he did in 2011.
His non-traditional stats -- career bests in strikeout/walk (3.65), fielding independent pitching (3.04) and xFIP (3.62) -- are strong, but not as knockout-impressive as other Cy Young candidates such as Stephen Strasburg (11.33 K/9), Gio Gonzalez (2.80 FIP), Clayton Kershaw (2.84 FIP), Cliff Lee (6.04 K/BB) or Adam Wainwright (2.99 xFIP). Still, it's not like Cueto is a one-hit wonder: He would've won the NL ERA title last year with a 2.31 ERA had season-starting and -ending stints on the disabled list not prevented him from pitching a measly six more innings to qualify.
He has been healthy the entire 2012 season and therefore has been a constant for the Reds, who have at various times been without the services of key players such as Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, Drew Stubbs and Ryan Madson. Just how important has the righty been to the Reds? Despite Votto's ethereal .465 OBP, Cueto nearly matches him in WAR (wins above replacement), 4.3 to 4.8. So Cueto may more appropriately qualify as an MVP candidate than for the Cy Young.
As the surging Cardinals head into Cincinnati for a weekend series, Cueto will miss the action (he's next scheduled to pitch Tuesday). In addition to the built-in rivalry between the two contending teams -- including former Cardinals Rolen, Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Cairo, all of whom don a different red-and-white uniform now -- the matchup is a reminder of the ongoing bad blood between the Reds' ace and the defending world champs. The weekend tilt isn't the only meeting with Cardinals players that Cueto has missed this season. Though he was expected to join Yadier Molina (later replaced by Matt Holliday), Carlos Beltran, Lance Lynn, David Freese and Rafael Furcal on the NL All-Star team, former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa passed over Cueto, upsetting both the player and his manager, Dusty Baker. For his part, La Russa denied any vendetta, insisting that he omitted Cueto because he was scheduled to start two days before the game. La Russa also snubbed Zack Greinke, having a better year than Cueto, and of course is no stranger to head-scratcher lineup choices. But even so, the episode wasn't exactly an act of rapprochement.
Cueto made himself persona non grata with the Cardinals two years ago for his cheap shots in the fight. But there's nothing cheap about his 2012 campaign, which he's establishing with his arm. And that's what continues to make his presence on the field an unwelcome sight, not only for the Cardinals but the rest of the National League this year.
Matt Philip tweets at @fungoes and posts everything that doesn't fit at fungoes.net.