Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Watched: Johnny Cueto

Johnny Cueto's major league debut on April 3rd was the talk of the baseball world last week. The 22 year old struck out 10 in seven innings, giving up only one hit, a Justin Upton solo homerun. Cueto (pronounced 'Kway-tow') was signed by Cincinnati out of the Dominican Republic as a 19 year old and flew through their minor league system.

Tonight was Johnny's second start, so I decided to check him out. I have read comparisons between Cueto and a young Pedro Martinez, and I can understand that: they are both Dominican, they are both slight of build (Cueto is a bit stockier, though), and they both have electric stuff. Tonight, though, the FSN Ohio crew showed a side-by-side comparison of Cueto's pitching motion next to Bob Gibson's motion and they are very similar. Gibson is a bit taller than Cueto, but the motion and especially the follow through (falling off towards first base) are very similar.

Cueto pitched well again tonight, although he wasn't quite as dominant. He came out of the game after 6.1 innings, having given up 5 hits and 2 earned runs, while striking out 8. The statistic that I find most impressive is that he did not walk a single batter (which gives him a total of zero on the year so far in 13.1 innings). He throws four plus pitches: a 2 seam fastball, a 4 seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. He seemed to mix them well, throwing any of his pitches on any count. It seemed that he gave up on his 2 seam fastball after missing a few times with it early - it was coming in at 91-92mph and had a lot of run to it. His 4 seam fastball sits around 94-96mph, but was very straight [edit - note: pitch f/x seems to disagree with me here, as almost all of his fastballs show at least some movement]. The few times that he got in trouble (other than a hanging slider that Bill Hall hit over the leftfield fence) it seemed like he relied too much on the 4 seam fastball and the Brewers hitters were able to sit on it.

Both his slider and his changeup can be used as put-away pitches. The slider is the type that is usually thrown out of the strikezone to get the batter to chase, which works well with his fastball. The changeup is used similarly, as he has very good arm action and the pitch fades down and in to a righthanded hitter. He used both pitches as strikeout pitches and to setup a high fastball for the strikeout.

One of the concerns with Cueto is with his workload. He is not a big guy and his manager (Dusty Baker) has a history of overworking his young pitchers (Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, please pick up a white courtesy phone). I was especially curious to see how Dusty would handle him as the game wore on. The Reds were down 1-0 in the top of the seventh inning when Cueto's spot in the lineup came up with a man on second and one out. He had already thrown 86 pitches at that point, but Dusty did not pinch hit for him. Cueto grounded out to short, moving the runner to third (who eventually scored). I couldn't help thinking of Mark Prior and wondering if Dusty would run Cueto out there for 120 pitches. In the bottom of the seventh Cueto gave up a leadoff homerun to Hall (on the aforementioned hanging slider, which probably made every Reds fan scream obscenities at Dusty for not pinch hitting for the kid), but then struck out Corey Hart on some of the nastiest pitches he had thrown all night. Then Dusty took him out after 96 pitches.

Setting aside the questionable game management, I think 96 pitches is probably a smart limit for Cueto. He is only 22 years old and has less than 350 innings as a professional prior to this season. He is a dynamic talent and the Reds need to protect their investment in him. Hopefully Dusty Baker has learned from his failure to manage Prior and Woods' innings properly and Cueto won't suffer the same fate.

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