Much has been made about the Cincinnati Reds' offense after the offseason loss of Shin-Soo Choo and the promotion of speedster Billy Hamilton. However, one area where the Reds have improved this season has been in their run prevention. And a key cog in that change has been the talented and healthy Johnny Cueto.
Cueto arrived to a lot of hype back in 2008 after winning the Reds' minor league player of the year award. In his major league debut as a 22-year-old, he carried a perfect game against the Arizona Diamondbacks through five innings before giving up a home run to Justin Upton. That home run was the only baserunner he allowed through seven innings as he struck out 10.
We saw shades of similar dominance Saturday night as Cueto led the Reds to a 6-2 win against the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers, allowing just three hits (a pair of solo home runs and an infield single) over eight innings while striking out 10. He even chipped in an RBI single to help his own cause. Over his past four starts, Cueto has allowed just 12 hits in 34 innings while striking out 37. Opponents are batting just .132 against him this season.
With injuries to Mat Latos and Tony Cingrani and rotation uncertainty because of Homer Bailey’s inconsistency and Alfredo Simon’s starter-conversion experiment, Cueto needs to keep delivering that kind of excellence for the Reds to contend.
The question then becomes, what led to Johnny Cueto’s development between his 2008 expectations and the 2014 dominance? His 2009 and 2010 seasons were solid, yielding reasonable ratios of hits and home runs allowed, but a far cry from elite status. However, as a young pitcher, expectations remained high.
Then, in 2011, he took his game that additional step further. Part of that success might be from the Luis Tiant-esque torso-twisting windup (or for younger fans, Hideo Nomo) that he adopted that year. The increased deception from that windup might be the reason his performance improved as he started giving up fewer hits and home runs.
But it might also have increased his risk for injury. In September 2011, he hit the disabled list because of a strained back muscle that shut him down for the remainder of the season and left him just short of the minimum number of innings needed to qualify for the NL ERA title. He then left eight pitches into his Game 1 National League Division Series start against the Giants, again because of a strained back muscle. Those recurring back problems forced Cueto to begin the 2013 season on the disabled list and obliterated most of that season when he was twice forced back to the DL.
Though both he and Reds manager (and former Reds pitching coach) Bryan Price do not attribute the windup to his back muscle injuries, Cueto has exhibited less of a twist this season. Though the twist may be somewhat less pronounced, he has managed to reap the benefits of its inclusion.
Throughout his career, one of Cueto’s strengths has been preventing base hits, with an average of 8.2 hits per 9 innings coming into Saturday's start. That strength reached a new level this year as he is yielding only 4.2 hits per 9 innings, surrendering no more than three hits per start since April 11, a span of four starts. Furthermore, while the slight change in mechanics has not affected his walk rate, he has upped his game in the strikeout department. He's averaging 9.6 strikeouts per 9, which is well above his career rate of 7.1.
Whether the change in Cueto’s mechanics will lead to better health is hard to portend. Yet so far, the Reds should be happy with the improvement in his performance. As the Reds' rotation returns to health and time sorts out who is consistent enough to remain in the rotation, the Reds' chances of contention improve if there are fewer twists and turns in Cueto’s health.
Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers on the SweetSpot Network.