How to Deal

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In case you hadn’t noticed, Johnny Cueto is an effective hurler of baseballs. The National League has certainly noticed, as Cueto was just honored with his first NL Player of the Week award.

The award was well-deserved. Last week, Cueto made two starts (against Miami and Cleveland), pitching 17 total innings in which he allowed just ten hits and four earned runs while striking out 15 hitters. Yeah, that’s getting it done.

But it’s not like Cueto just started pitching well last week. He’s been nothing short of dominant all season long: 14-6, 2.05 ERA, 178 adjusted ERA+. Cueto leads the league in wins and innings pitched. He has surrendered just 5.8 hits per nine innings; that’s also the best mark in the league.

It gets better. That ERA is the best of his career. This year, hitters are hitting just .182/.247/.290 against Cueto. His strikeout rate is also the best mark he’s ever posted: 25.8%. His walk rate (6.7%) is the second-lowest of his career.

But it’s not like Cueto just started pitching well this year, either. He was named to his first All-Star team this season—a long-overdue honor—but Reds fans (if not fans all around baseball) know that Cueto has been superb for at least the last five years. Since 2010—Cueto’s third full season in the big leagues—he’s posted a 59-29 record with a 2.73 ERA in 124 games. Sure, his numbers this year (at age 28) are the best of his career, but he’s no Johnny-Beisbol-come-lately.

Those numbers are simply astounding for anyone who has watched the Reds for the past few decades. The last time a Cincinnati starter had an ERA that low while pitching enough innings to qualify for the ERA title? None other than the phenom, Gary Nolan, who posted a 1.99 ERA as a 24-year-old back in 1972. Before that, you have to go back to Dolf Luque, who led the league with a 1.93 mark in 1923. I don’t think even Marty Brennaman was around during Dolf Luque’s brilliant career.

The thing is, however, that Cueto has some competition in the National League for the Cy Young Award. He’s definitely in the conversation, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it. After all, there’s a certain lefty out in Los Angeles who is making a case as one of the greatest pitchers of this (or any) generation.

No, not Hyun-jin Ryu. I’m talking about Clayton Kershaw, with the gaudy 14-2 record and league-leading 1.78 ERA. There’s your Cy Young winner, presuming he doesn’t get hurt in the next few weeks. Period.

But let’s not minimize Cueto’s performance by comparing it to Kershaw. No one is as good as that guy. Heck, I put MLB14: The Show on the “Beginner” difficulty, and I still couldn’t get beat that guy. (Also, I traded Alfredo Simon for Cole Hamels. It’s a very realistic simulation, as you can see.)

Anyway, Cueto’s ERA is second only to Kershaw. He’s tied with Kershaw and Adam Wainwright for the lead in wins, if that sort of thing matters to you. Only Kershaw has stranded a greater percentage of baserunners than Cueto’s 83%. Cueto’s Win Probability Added (3.15; it’s a measure of how much a player contributes to a team’s probability of winning, as you might have expected) is third only to Kershaw and Wainwright. I’ve already told you about innings pitched and H/9, where Cueto leads NL hurlers.

In most other advanced statistical categories, Cueto ranks in the top five (or close) among National League pitchers:

–fWAR: Cueto (3.3) ranks fourth (behind Kershaw, Wainwright, Jordan Zimmerman).
SIERA: Cueto (3.04) ranks fourth (behind Kershaw, Strasburg, Zack Greinke).
–Strikeout rate: Cueto (25.8%) ranks fourth (behind Kershaw, Strasburg, Greinke).
–K/9: Cueto (9.07) ranks fifth (Kershaw, Strasburg, Greinke are top three).
xFIP: Cueto (3.07) ranks seventh (Kershaw, Strasburg, Greinke are top three).

So what does all this tell us? Well, nothing we didn’t already know. Cueto is good. Very good. He’s among the best pitchers in the National League. If you squint, you can make the case that Cueto is the second or third best pitcher in the league. No, he isn’t Clayton Kershaw, but who is?

Enjoy it, Reds fans. The season that we are seeing from Cueto is likely to be one of the best Reds pitching performances that you will witness in your lifetime.

Chad Dotson is a contributing writer to our Reds Blog. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog.

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