In praise of Johnny Cueto, who confuses, confounds and delivers

I heard his name just as I was leaving the parking lot, starting my walk to Oracle Park.

I heard his name just as I was leaving the parking lot, starting my walk to Oracle Park.

“Johnny Cueto, baby! We got Johnny on the mound today!”

The guy yelling at me was a total stranger. But it was a game day, and the Dodgers were in town. We were all in it together.

I looked at my new friend, decked out in Giants regalia and strangely accompanied by two Dodgers fans. The odd group had clearly camped out in the lot for a few. A sense of lubrication filled the air.

“That’s right,” I said, toting my laptop to the best office in the world. “The man of a thousand wind-ups.”

I hadn’t even checked who was pitching for the Giants that day, but I was glad to hear it was Cueto, the most entertaining big league pitcher since the days of Mark “The Bird” Fydrich and Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky. Cueto is to pitching what Gaudi was to architecture, a complete original that makes you say things like, “What is that?” or “I didn’t know you could do that?” He’s a contortionist, with a minor in illusion.

My buddy was still talking as I snapped back to reality. “Luis Tiant! He reminds me of Tiant, you know? You remember Luis Tiant?” he shouted in my ear, which was about three feet away from his mouth.

“Sure, sure. Tiant was great,” I said, of the long-retired Cuban hurler. “A real artist. Loved him when he was pitching for the Red Sox. Back in the Don Zimmer days.”

The Dodgers fans gaped at me in confusion. They had no idea who Don Zimmer was, much less Luis Tiant. (Of course, they were Dodgers fans.)

“You’re dating yourself, man!” my friend screamed, his pitch reaching alarming levels. “They don’t know who the hell you’re talking about!”

Indeed, these were names from the distant past. But the link between Tiant and Cueto is clear. The comparison, apt.

It’s also nothing new. The connection with Tiant has come up for years, ever since Cueto came up with Cincinnati in 2008. But even now, 15 seasons down the road, it’s still fun to talk about.

The son of a Cuban ballplayer who once played in the Negro Leagues, Tiant had the most unique pitching motion of his era, pivoting completely backward on one leg to look the centerfielder in the eye before reversing course, returning back to address the plate and letting fly an assortment of filth that baffled hitters for years. I was mesmerized by his delivery as a kid. I wondered why nobody else did it like that.

The answer is pretty simple: It’s hard to do. Most pitchers spend years locking in a repeatable motion, like a golfer grooves her swing. Even the great Tiant stayed pretty true to his crazy delivery. It was his signature.

Cueto’s pitching delivery is more like a forgery. Different every time, matching the situation and circumstance. There’s the shimmy-step. The full windup. The backward twist. High leg kick. Low leg kick. The quick pitch and the hesitation move. His arm angles are all over the place, ranging from side-slinger to three-quarters to 12 o’clock heat. It’s all meant to confuse and confound hitters, who thrive on timing. If they don’t know what to expect, the pitcher gains an advantage.

When he’s on, Cueto’s creative antics can result in dominance.

Such was the case Thursday, when the Dominican native delivered 5-2/3 innings of shutout ball to help the Giants win the rubber match against L.A., in the most important series of the season to date. He gave up four hits, striking out five while issuing only two walks. It was vintage Johnny, and you could tell he was giving it a bit extra. His fastball was hitting 93 and 94 mph consistently, which is a bit faster than we’ve seen earlier this season. The win brought his season record to 7-5, with a 3.84 ERA in 17 starts. With the Giants holding down the best record in baseball, and a three-game lead on the Dodgers, Cueto is vying to be a back of the rotation regular in the second half of the season and perhaps cement himself in the playoff rotation.

It would mean a lot to a guy who hasn’t seen the postseason since his first year with the Giants, 2016, when he came over from the Reds and pitched against the Cubs in the Divisional Series.

“We had a very good team in 2016,” said Cueto, after his gem against the Dodgers. “This is a very good team in 2021. But, as you know, there’s still plenty of baseball left to go. So, we just … gotta keep winning the way we’re doing right now.”

Keep ‘em guessing, Johnny, and you’ll keep winning.

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