I love Johnny Cueto. In 2014, when he was with Cincinnati, I used the MLB Extra innings TV package to watch almost every one of his started, even though my rooting interest is with Boston. I’ve argued that he gets unfair short shrift when compared to other top starters, notably Clayton Kershaw. I think Johnny got robbed of the Cy Young Award in 2012 and he should have won it in 2014.
But the numbers don’t lie—last night, Johnny was awful. Had Kershaw come up that small in a big game, you can be assured I’d be rushing into this space to pounce. Fairness requires that my guy Johnny C get the same treatment.
His pitching line speaks for itself—eight runs in two innings, with a lot of balls absolutely crushed by Toronto last night. The Blue Jays beat the Royals 11-8, but the game wasn’t that close. Kansas City scored four times in in the ninth and never brought the tying run to the plate. The most the Royals can take solace in was forcing to use Toronto to use closer Roberto Osuna. We’ll see if that has consequences with a quick turnaround, an afternoon Game 4 today.
What really got crushed, along with Cueto, was the last vestiges of my argument that he’s the best pitcher in baseball. I’m not so much conceding with regards to Kershaw. Johnny has still pitched most of his career in an extreme hitters’ park in Cincinnati, while Kershaw has had an extreme pitchers’ park in Los Angeles. Cueto should still have two Cy Young Awards, which would make this debate much more interesting. And Cueto’s Game 5 gem in the Division Series against Houston last week still trumps anything Kershaw has ever done in October.
But in today’s game, you can’t be up and down in October and lay a claim to being the best. Maybe pre-1994, when you had win a division of 6-7 teams to advance directly to the League Championship Series, making baseball a much more regular season-oriented sport, it was doable.
Now, you don’t have to be great to make the playoffs. One-third of the teams qualify. Which means the pitchers teams should want the most are ones who are good enough to get in and then capable of raising their game. Madison Bumgarner leads the list. Guys like Jon Lester and Cole Hamels would come in after that. Johnny’s got a ways to go before being able to match up to those October resumes.
I still love Johnny—as evidenced by the fact I’ve gone first-name basis throughout this post, as though he would have the foggiest idea of who I am. I still have strong confidence that if he gets the ball in Kansas City on Saturday night for a Game 7, he’ll get it done. But last night was very hard to watch.
Another Cy Young voting season passed without any respect for Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto. The righthander who labors in the extreme hitter-friendliness of Great American Ballpark and now is on a subpar team, just piles up wins, excellent ERAs and a lot of innings. But instead of having the two Cy Youngs that should rightly be in his trophy case, Johnny C only has one first-place vote in his career.
Cueto lost the 2012 award to R.A. Dickey, then with the New York Mets. Cueto lost this year’s honor to Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodger lefty that the media can’t stop oohing and aahing over. Let’s do a brief comparison of the numbers, remembering that in both cases Cueto pitches in a very short park, while both Dickey and Kershaw were in vast pitchers’ parks… 2012 Cueto: 19-9, 2.78 ERA, 217 IP Dickey: 20-6, 2.73 ERA, 233 IP
If you don’t think park effects matter at all, then Dickey would have a very narrow edge. But that also defies common sense. Would a knuckleballer like Dickey have any chance of posting those numbers in Cincinnati, where lazy fly balls disappear? How much more aggressive could Cueto have been in Citi Field, knowing that the park would swallow up mistakes? An informed vote would have required that Dickey show a substantial edge in surface numbers. That clearly didn’t exist here. 2014 Cueto: 20-9, 2.25 ERA, 243 IP Kershaw: 21-3, 1.77 ERA, 198 IP
Now I won’t say this one was as big a joke as the 2012 voting, which was appalling. But everything that was said about Citi Field applies to Dodger Stadium, and therefore that means Cueto deserves the same benefit of the doubt.
Furthermore, unlike 2012, Cueto no longer pitched for a contending team. I watched a lot of his starts this season and the lack of run support was a persistent problem. How many more games might have won with the Dodger lineup supporting him? To say nothing of the fact he was in the rotation all year, while Kershaw missed the first month
I believe Johnny Cueto is the best pitcher in baseball. Those of us that do will always be at a disadvantage because Kershaw’s legions will point to their man’s three Cy Young Awards, while Johnny has none. But if there were justice in voting, Cueto and Kershaw would be tied in Cy Youngs at 2-2.
The National League has baseball’s best division race and two red-hot races for individual awards. Here’s nine thoughts on the NL landscape with 6 ½ weeks to go in the regular season…
*There’s no topic in baseball more important to me right now than that Cincinnati Reds’ ace Johnny Cueto get his due as the Cy Young frontrunner. He’s got an ERA of 2.05 while pitching in an extreme hitters’ park. Clayton Kershaw has been fantastic, at a buck-78 ERA and a no-hitter, but also pitches in Dodger Stadium. The battle between Cueto, Kershaw and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis for the Cy Young is a true battle, and the media’s love affair with Kershaw shouldn’t blind them to that.
*The difference in the NL MVP race might be the Miami Marlins’ bullpen. Miami rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton should be the frontrunner, with his .395 on-base percentage/.563 slugging percentage and 31 home runs that tie him for the league lead. What’s going to cost him is if the Marlins come up short in the wild-card race—and if that happens, blame the bullpen, with their 17 blown saves and 12th-place NL ranking in save percentage.
*Stanton is part of a trend where a lot of MVP-caliber talent in the National League is on bad teams. We can include two great first basemen, Anthony Rizzo in Chicago and Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona. Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was leading this list until being recently sidelined for the year. San Diego Padres’ outfielder Sean Smith is having a surprise big year. We might want to reconsider the notion that an MVP has to come from a playoff team—this is an individual award, and it’s nice for the individual to actually have a year worthy of the honor.
*There’s no division race better than the NL Central, with the Milwaukee Brewers up two games on St. Louis and 2 ½ on the Pittsburgh Pirates. This could end up a war of attrition—the Cards have already lost Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha until at least mid-September (and that’s being optimistic). The Pirates just put Andrew McCutchen on the disabled list. And while not as flashy, don’t overlook the importance of a fragile Brewer staff losing starter Matt Garza for a little while, right when Garza had gotten on a roll.
*There’s one pitcher in the National League who is tied with the Cueto/Kershaw/Wainwright trio for wins, at fourteen. The name? It’s Wily Peralta in Milwaukee, with a 3.46 ERA to go with it. Whether Peralta, a live young arm with great stuff, can pitch well down the stretch is the biggest factor—beyond health of the contenders—in deciding whether the Brewers hold off the Cards and Pirates.
*And the third big factor in this NL Central race is the bullpens. Milwaukee and Pittsburgh both have problems here, ranking 9th and 10th in the league in save percentage and being below 70 percent at closing out their chances. St. Louis is up at 77 percent, but that’s still just 8th in the NL.
*One team without any bullpen problems is the Washington Nationals. The Nats have Rafael Soriano to close the door, to go with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen right in front of him, all with sub-2.00 ERAs. Washington has relievers for their fifth and sixth options that would get immediate prominence on the staff of any of the NL Central contenders. Washington is a nice all-around team, but it’s this pen that’s the biggest reason for their comfortable six-game lead in the NL East.
*It’s been nice watching the overachieving San Francisco Giants hang in the NL West race all year, but it appears the raw talent of the Los Angeles Dodgers is finally taking over, as the Dodgers have nudged out to a 5 ½ game lead. San Fran is still very much alive in the wild-card race, but they needed the breaks to go their way to beat the lavishly funded Dodgers, and those breaks have been anything but kind in Frisco.
*If you ever doubt the importance of park effects on player stats, take a look at the collective examples of the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. The Rockies, in the ultimate hitters’ park of Coors Field, are first in the NL in runs scored and last in ERA. The Padres, in the ultimate pitching environment of Petco Park, are first in ERA and last in runs scored. Parks matter. And whenever I bring this subject up, I’m bringing it back to use as evidence for why Johnny Cueto is better than Clayton Kershaw. Let those two pitchers change parks for a season, and it would no longer be a debate.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Prior to the start of this baseball season, I texted a friend with a simple question—allowing for good health, was Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto the top starter in the National League? My friend, though a Reds fan, responded as though I was nuts, saying that while he hoped Johnny would have a big year, that the answer to the question was clearly the Los Angeles Dodgers Clayton Kershaw.
I was mystified by why Cueto was so casually dismissed, particularly given that I made clear that there was a prerequisite using the phrase “when healthy” in asking about Cueto. The Reds’ starter has had an assortment of nagging injuries that cost him a handful of starts in 2011 and a large chunk of 2013. But when he’s healthy, he’s as good as anyone in baseball.
Cueto has made me look good in the opening segment of the baseball season. As he gets set to take the ball on Memorial Day evening (ironically in Los Angeles, though not against Kershaw), Johnny has made ten starts and has a buck-86 ERA. The record is only 4-3 due to an appalling lack of run support, but he’s now back in the discussion for best pitcher in the National League.
One reason for my strong support of Cueto, particularly at the expense of Kershaw, is that Cueto works in one of the tougher environments to pitch in, at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Kershaw has the pitcher’s equivalent of luxury digs, at vast Dodger Stadium.
To put everything in black and white, let’s go year-by-year in comparing numbers between Cueto and Kershaw. Let’s remember again that my case for Cueto is predicated on his health and the degree of difficulty in his home park in going through these, so I get that the Dodger lefthander is going to look better on the surface. But hear me out when we’re finished.
2010 Cueto: 12-7, 3.64 ERA (31 starts) Kershaw: 13-10, 2.91 ERA (32 starts)
2011 Cueto: 9-5, 2.31 ERA (24 starts) Kershaw: 21-5, 2.28 ERA (33 starts)
2012 Cueto: 19-9, 2.78 ERA (33 starts) Kershaw: 14-9, 2.53 ERA (33 starts)
2013 Cueto: 5-2, 2.82 ERA (11 starts) Kershaw: 16-9, 1.83 ERA (33 starts)
After Cueto’s learning year of 2009, the gap between the two starters narrows sharply. How much do park effects count for? A variety of sabermetric studies take whacks at this, but it’s still an inexact science. Does it make up for an 0.50 ERA difference, as in the case of 2010? I don’t see why not. Watch a game in Cincinnati some night and see how many balls find the seats that are normal flyball outs in Los Angeles. I acknowledge a half-run per game over the course of a season is a lot, but I also think the difference in these parks is really that substantial.
It’s 2012 that upsets me the most when it comes to Cueto. In spite of the park disadvantages he faced, he was denied the Cy Young Award. It was instead given to R.A. Dickey, then with the New York Mets. In fact, Cueto finished fourth, including behind Kershaw. Cueto won five more games than Kershaw, made the same number of starts, and when it comes to park effects, I’m very confident in saying that 2.78 in Cincy is better than 2.53 in Los Angeles.
If Cueto had a Cy Young Award in his trophy case, my argument would seem more compelling—and if justice had been served in 2012, he would already have one.
Finally, Cueto suffers in public perception because of a tough outing in the wild-card game last year in Pittsburgh and the belief that he was rattled. He did not pitch well, although he had been just activated off the disabled list fairly recently and it’s debatable how sharp he was. The belief that he was rattled stems from the razzing he took from the crowd and the fact he dropped the ball on the mound. Before we jump to wild conclusions, maybe he just dropped the baseball and there weren’t any deeper reasons for it.
Furthermore, Kershaw had his own moment in the playoffs that gets overlooked. He got the ball in St. Louis in a must-win spot, Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. While Cueto struggled, Kershaw was positively destroyed, losing the game 9-2.
I’m not suggesting that anyone come down on Kershaw, but why does he get a free pass while Cueto gets nit-picked?
In spite of the tone of this post, I’m not anti-Clayton Kershaw. He deserved both Cy Young Awards he received, in 2011 and 2013. I even think he deserved the MVP award last year, though I think it was more a product of what I saw as a pedestrian National League field.
If I’m a Kershaw backer I point to his durability—in spite of missing a month this season, he’s been good for 30-plus starts for five seasons—and say that having to make the concession of assuming perfect health to Cueto in this argument is pretty significant.
That’s fair enough, and in fact I agree. If I had to build a team for the next five years and needed to choose between these two pitchers, I’d take Kershaw precisely because I’m worried that Cueto’s injury history, and his odd throwing motion isn’t something that will go away. If I’m a Fantasy League owner, I might acknowledge the role park effects play, while also pointing out that in Fantasy Leagues, it really doesn’t matter.
But none of these factors were my original question, cited at the top of this piece. My question is this—let’s say both pitchers are healthy, and you’ve got one game to go win. I’m putting chips on Johnny Cueto.