A Cut Above

 

 

If last night was the end of Johnny Cueto’s glorious eight-year stretch with the Cincinnati Reds, what a fitting end it was—nine shutout innings of two-hit, shoulder-shimmying brilliance on the mound. With Cueto’s last scheduled start of the first half slated for Sunday (the final day of play before the All-Star Game), there is talk that the Reds could sit Cueto so that he can participate in the game, in his home ballpark (for now), should he receive the the final spot on the National League squad. There’s also the reality that the Reds could sit Cueto because his trade value couldn’t possibly be higher after last night’s game, which, along with an MLB-best .152 batting average against his fastball, likely proved once and for all that his early-season elbow issues are no longer a factor. And even if Cueto does take the mound for the Reds again this season, it’s almost unfathomable that he’ll still be in Cincinnati when I write my next post for Nuxhall Way in two weeks—a necessary evil, but one that most everyone, including Reds manager Bryan Price, has come to grips with. Here’s Price speaking with reporters after the Reds 2-1 win against the Minnesota Twins last week:

“Johnny is going to have a lot of opportunities, it looks like. Sometimes when it looks unrealistic to have a player return, you hope everyone has a chance to step back and enjoy what they’re seeing. I do think we’re seeing a very special pitcher right now, regardless of where he ends up—whether it’s Cincinnati or someplace else.”

He’s leaving, and it’s disappointing on a number of levels, none simpler than the fact that he’s one of the most entertaining pitchers of this generation, and easily one of the best the Reds have ever produced. He works fast from the stretch, and his combination of talent, quirkiness, and occasional emotional fire make the Luis Tiant comparisons flying around quite fitting. But I’ll always look back at Cueto’s career with the Reds with general disappointment—not disappointment in him, but for him. It feels like Cueto’s 91 wins for Cincinnati could’ve been 130 if his time here wasn’t shadowed by a great drought in run support. (His career run support per game is 4.1, though that has dropped to 3.6 since the 2012 season; both numbers are below league average of 4.4.) This was never more apparent than 2014, when Cueto preformed a borderline-biblical miracle in winning 20 games for a terrible team. As I’ve stated in many a past Nuxhall Way posts, my previous career-stop required me to be present at every Reds home game, and to view every Reds away game last year. The 2014 Reds made that a crippling challenge for even the truest of baseball fans, and there were days and meetings in which it was miserable. But every five days, Cueto pitched and all was right with the world. I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed watching a pitcher work more than I enjoyed Cueto in 2014, which is arguably the best season by a pitcher in the past 20 years that DID NOT result in a Cy Young award. (Damn you, Clayton Kershaw.) A look back makes for a remarkably disappointing what-could-have-been for Cueto and the Reds.

There are plenty reasons why win-loss record is a flawed stat for starting pitchers, but in the context of Cueto’s start to the 2014 season, it’s also a perfect microcosm of his career as a Red. He began the year with a 5-5 record despite quality starts (at least six innings, allowing less than three runs) in 11 of his first 13 trips to the mound. Cueto finished the season 15-4 from there, including a 10-3 record in the same time span after the All-Star break that saw the Reds compile a dismal 25-42 record as a team. To put that into perspective, Cueto—1/5 of the Reds rotation and 1/12 of an average pitching staff—accounted for 2/5 of every Reds victory during the second half of the season. Furthermore, Cueto led all of baseball with 29 quality starts (four more than anyone else in the N.L), yet suffered five losses and four no-decisions in those games. Additionally, the Reds didn’t provide Cueto with enough run support to win a single game in which he did not provide a quality start. For some perspective, Cy Young-winning Clayton Kershaw got the win in two non-quality starts for the Dodgers, despite starting in seven fewer games than Cueto (27 and 34, respectively).

Grasping just how hard it was for Cueto to win in 2014 becomes even more unfathomable when accounting for the recently popularized “Ultra Quality Start” statistic, in which a pitcher must go at least seven innings while giving up two runs or less. Cueto achieved that feat a remarkable 22 times last season (compared to 16 for Kershaw), which means that Cueto produced more Ultra Quality Starts (22) than total wins (20). Cueto’s average run support (3.4 per game) was also the 14th lowest among starting N.L. pitchers last year; Cole Hamels (3.3 per game) was the only pitcher among the 12 who received votes for the N.L. Cy Young with a lower average.

The knowledge that Cueto allowed more than three earned runs just four times in 2014 (and allowed two or less 27 times) and still won only 20 games is enraging just on principal. In today’s era of pitch counts, it’s likely that no pitcher will ever win 30 games again; but had Cueto received any support and Kershaw been healthy all season, it seems obvious that both would have come closer to 30 than anyone since Bob Welch won 27 for Oakland in 1990—the last time a pitcher eclipsed 25 wins in the last 35 years. And if that had been the case, we’d probably remember 2014 as the best Cy Young race of the last 40 years, instead of the year that Clayton Kershaw had the best 27 game stretch in history while Johnny Cueto pitched for a terrible team.  Even in retrospect, the gap will likely be looked back upon as much closer than Kershaw’s unanimous victory suggests (he received all 30 first place Cy Young votes), as the duo finished first and second in the N.L. in 15 different pitching statistics (according to Baseball Reference), ranging from wins to the most in-depth Sabermetrics:

Wins: Kershaw 21, Cueto 20
ERA: Kershaw 1.77, Cueto 2.25
K’s: Cueto 242 (tied with Stephen Strasburg), Kershaw 239
WHIP: Kershaw 0.86, Cueto 0.96
Quality Start Percentage: Kershaw .89, Cueto .85
Average Game Score: Kershaw 70.3, Cueto 65.3
Batting Average Against: Cueto .194, Kershaw .196
Opponents on Base Percentage: Kershaw .231, Cueto .261
OPS: Kershaw .521, Cueto .574
Hits per Nine Innings: Cueto 6.242, Kershaw 6.308
Base Runners Per inning: Kershaw .857, Cueto .96
Adjusted ERA+: Kershaw 197, Cueto 160
Adjusted Pitching Runs: Kershaw 40, Cueto 36
Adjusted pitching wins: Kershaw 4.7, Cueto 4.1
Win Probability Added: Kershaw 5.3, Cueto 4.9

It’s also worth mentioning that Cueto led all of baseball in innings pitched (243.2), total batters faced (961), and total pitches (3,659), compared to just 198.2, 749, and 2,722 for Kershaw. That’s not to discount Kershaw, who led baseball with a WAR of 8.0 in 2014, but Cueto maintained his greatness for a full seven starts longer than Kershaw did on the season. And, as we know now, Kershaw had a complete meltdown in the playoffs, allowing eight runs in the Dodgers series opener against the Cardinals, and taking the series-deciding loss four days later in a shaky, three-run, six-inning loss. Of course, San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner turned into an actual cyborg in the playoffs (4-1, 1.03 ERA, 52.2 innings pitched), stealing much of Kershaw’s thunder while also distracting attention away from any retrospective arguments that Cueto may have deserved (while the Reds sat at home, no less). All of which is to say, Cueto’s 2014 season was underappreciated, in my opinion.

If nothing else, Reds fans can look back on the 2014 season as a brief moment in time when the Reds had arguably the best starter in the game. Sadly, the reality of small-market baseball means that the club is about to ship him away less than a year later. They have to. But if the club can get the quality prospect(s) in return that a talent like Johnny Cueto deserves, the Reds may owe any near-future success to him all over again.

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Joshua A. Miller is a Nuxhall Way and Cincinnati Magazine contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @_J_A_Miller.

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