We Shall Never See His Like Again

 

 

I have some bad news to deliver: your Redlegs have lost 14 of their last 21 games. It’s a downward spiral that has seen the club drop from one game above .500 (and hanging in there, as one optimistic Nuxhall Way contributor put it) to a 25-31 record, fourth place in the NL Central and 12 games back, all in the span of three weeks. Any hopes that the Reds harbored of being a competitive team in 2015 have seemingly been dashed on the shores of injury, bad pitching, and a lack of depth.

Even one of the bright spots of this dismal season—Johnny Cueto’s amazing right arm—looked for a moment like it may follow the same script as nearly everything else for the Reds. I’m still not certain that we’re out of the woods on this one, but after missing two turns in the rotation, Cueto returned to the mound in fine fashion last week.

In two starts, Cueto permitted just one run over 13 innings of work. In his latest outing, over the weekend against San Diego, Cueto surrendered just four hits over seven shutout innings. Even more promising, Cueto hit 96 on the radar gun a number of times. Is it possible that the injury concerns were overstated?

Perhaps. But this is Johnny Cueto, the best starting pitcher we’ve seen in Cincinnati since Jose Rijo.* It’s understandable if Reds fans get a little nervous at the notion that Cueto might be seriously injured.

*Cueto has been even better than Jimmy Haynes, if you can believe it.

Hopefully, we’ve crossed that bridge. Against the Padres, Cueto looked like his old self. Which means, of course, that Reds fans can instead return to worrying about when he’ll be traded to a contending team. (Since the 2015 Reds are rapidly circling the drain, in case you forgot.) Frankly, I can’t imagine many scenarios under which Cueto is still a member of the Reds in two months time.

And that makes me sad.

Now, I don’t want to begin speaking of Cueto in the past tense just yet, but I think it’s interesting to look back on his time in the Queen City. Because I’m a junkie for this sort of thing, I love digging around in Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to see where particular Reds stand among the greats in team history. Cueto stands up pretty well.

It’s hard to believe that this is Cueto’s eighth season in a Cincinnati uniform since debuting as a 22-year-old way back in 2008. He struggled a bit in his first two seasons, as young pitchers almost always will. I’ll never forget the moment, during Cueto’s second season, when Reds broadcasting legend Marty Brennaman famously passed judgment on the youngster, declaring: “Frankly, I don’t think this kid is ever going to get it.”

Marty was wrong. Over the last five seasons, Cueto has been magnificent: 57-29, 2.50 ERA, 155 ERA+, averaging 6.3 WAR per 100 games. The only National League starters who can be mentioned in the same breath as Cueto over the last half-decade are some of the greats of the game: Kershaw, Lee, Hamels. In fact, only Clayton Kershaw has a better ERA or ERA+ over that span than Cueto.

Cueto’s 2012 (19-9, 2.78 ERA, 148 ERA+, fourth in Cy Young Award balloting) was brilliant, but last year was his masterpiece. In 2014, only Kershaw’s historically good campaign exceeded Cueto’s, as our guy went 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA (161 ERA+). Cueto led the league in starts, innings pitched, strikeouts, and he allowed fewer hits per nine innings than anyone in the NL. He made his first All-Star team and finished second in Cy Young voting. A season for the ages.

Plus, he had the best hair in the league, by far.

That 2014 campaign was among the greatest single seasons for a starter in Reds history. Cueto’s strikeout total was fourth-best in Reds history. His ERA+ was among the top-ten. Since 1950, only a handful of Reds pitchers can top Cueto’s 6.4 single-season WAR: Jose Rijo (9.3, 1993), Jim Maloney (8.1 in 1965, 7.1 in 1966), Mario Soto (7.5 in 1982, 6.8 in 1983), Bob Purkey (7.3, 1962), Bronson Arroyo* (6.8, 2006). These are all present or future Reds Hall-of-Famers.

*Arroyo also had great hair.

Cueto’s career bWAR of 23.8 is the 15th best in franchise history (among starting pitchers). If Cueto were to stay healthy and pitch this entire season in Cincinnati, there’s a decent chance he could move all the way up to ninth on the Reds’ career list. One more full season (which, alas, is unlikely to happen), and Cueto would likely be in the top five.

Look around at other categories, and you’ll continue to find that Cueto ranks highly among Reds starters all-time. Johnny’s career 124 ERA+ is fourth-best behind Jose Rijo (138), Noodles Hahn (138), Dutch Ruether (129), and tied with Bucky Walters. So, by one measure—a measure that adjusts pitching statistics across eras and ballparks—Cueto has been the second most-effective Reds starting pitcher since 1948.

Check out the strikeouts leaderboard: Cueto’s career total of 1,068 is eighth all-time in Reds history. (Jim Maloney is first, with 1,592; Cueto is just behind Aaron Harang and Arroyo on the list). He’ll move into the top-five by season’s end if he doesn’t get traded. He’s also 7th all-time in strikeouts per nine innings at the moment, though you can decide for yourself how impressive you think that is, given that Edinson Volquez has the highest strikeout rate by a wide margin.

I’m not here to tell you that Johnny Cueto is the best Reds pitcher ever, but I will say he’s one of the three best starters of my lifetime (alongside Rijo and Soto). And if the day comes when he’s no longer a Red, that’ll be a sad day for Cincinnati sports fans. It’s not often that one of the best pitchers in the big leagues plies his trade for the hometown nine.

But, hey, let’s not close the book on Cueto’s Reds career just yet, even if the end may just be in sight. Do what I plan to do: take every opportunity to watch Cueto pitch that you can get. You never know when his next start could be his last for the Reds, and it may be a long while before the club has an ace like this one again.

Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

 

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