Boston Red Sox: How Johnny Cueto could be the ace
May 20, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) pitches during the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
It has to be noted that very few pitchers successfully make the jump from the National League to the American League. The easy-out pitcher is replaced by somebody who not only can hit, but exists for no other reason than to hit, the DH. While that may seem obvious, it can come as a serious culture shock to pitchers and the pressure can make them nervous and ultimately affect their pitching style, strategy or both.
Now Cueto didn’t actually exhibit any signs of this at all, at first anyway. When he was first traded to the Royals, he sat with a stingy 2.62 ERA, a reliever-like WHIP of 0.93 and had just finished shutting out the Colorado Rockies for 8 innings. Though there were concerns about his arm during the first half of the season, he still threw a complete game shutout, allowing only 2 hits to the Washington Nationals on July 7. I’ll take it.
His debut for Kansas was a little less dominant however, giving up 7 hits and 3 earned runs in 6 innings. Keep in mind though, this was the perfect example of a trial by fire. He was facing the then burning hot Toronto Blue Jays, who went on a tear unlike any other after the All-Star Break, added a plus 89 to their run differential that same month and moved into first in AL East and MLB for hitting. Oh and it was in the Roger’s Center, Ding Dong City.
After that start, Cueto settled down a bit, including throwing another complete game shutout, this time against the Detroit Tigers. It was only on August 21 that things went south against, you guessed it, your Boston Red Sox. The Sox ended up taking the game 7-2, 6 runs charged to Cueto, including an up-in-the-zone fastball clubbed into the Monster seats by Josh Rutledge.
After that embarrassment Cueto never really recovered, giving up 6 earned runs again in his next game, then 4, then 5, then 7. Ouch. After that, Cueto somewhat settled down again for the rest of the regular season, but the damage was done. His postseason was similarly up and down, being rocked for 8 runs in 2 innings against the Blue Jays, but finishing up with a 2 hit complete game against the New York Mets in the World Series.
By now, you’re probably thinkin, is that the kind of ace we want in Boston? But remember, we are wearing Dombrowski’s brogues and when it comes to an ace for the Red Sox, he’s looking at the bigger picture, if not the bigger pitcher.
The good news is that the concerns for Cueto’s arm were unfounded. His fastball speed has remained consistent. His four-seamer sits around 93-94 MPH and he is comfortable throwing it at any count. Cueto, it should be noted, has a six pitch arsenal and has multiple delivery methods (more on this later) but his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, with their impeccable control, still remain his bread and butter.
Now, during those weeks that Cueto noticeably struggled, his usual command was nowhere to be seen and perhaps worse, his fastball speed was dropping to 88-89 on the two-seam and 90-91 on the four. For somebody who relies on the fastball, that drop in velocity is critical. A cursory glance at the two postseason games in which he exceled, against the Astros and Mets, shows he pounded them early with his revitalized 94 MPH fastball and was then able to generate swings and misses from his changeup late in the counts. His changeup, it must be said, is thrown from the same arm-slot, with similar delivery, but with a positively filthy late-life drop at the end.
What is the reason for the swing in Cueto’s velocity and fortunes? Jeff Passan at Yahoo! Sports writing after his dominating outing against the Astros, said the following:
"“…Cueto vowed, he was going to throw as hard as he could from the first pitch. No more first-inning procrastination, starting with fastballs at 91 and 89 and 90 and 91 and 90 miles per hour, like he had his last five starts. The Astros were going to see why the Royals traded for him. The Royals were going to see why they traded for him.”"
Much has been made of why Cueto’s speed has come and gone. What is known for sure is that when it’s there, he’s as dominating against American League opponents as National League opponents. Certainly he would have his work cut out for him in AL East, perhaps the most difficult division to pitch in of the lot. Still, if one assumes that much of Cueto’s struggles come from a lack of feeling settled, an absence of the conviction that he had while at Cincinnati (as Passan alludes), then in my opinion a fair case could be made for a return to form in Boston.
Next: He wants to pitch for the Red Sox