One detail about Johnny Cueto — the Giants new $130 million righty — has surprised Dave Righetti.
“He’s a quiet guy,” the long-time pitching coach said as he stood in the tunnel outside the frosted glass double doors that lead to the clubhouse on the ground floor of AT&T Park.
Not an adjective often attached to the 30-year-old starter famous for his exuberant style on the mound.
Asked about the juxtaposition between his contrasting demeanors, Cueto insisted that’s the way he’s always been.
“I have fun out on the mound and out in the field,” Cueto said via Erwin Higueros, the team’s translator. “But in the clubhouse, I’m quiet. I try not to bother anybody. [I] just stay in my place.”
His place is often at the side of veteran closer Santiago Casilla — the other Dominican on the roster. Hours before a game, that’s where Cueto can be found — seated in front of his locker, carrying on in Spanish with Casilla whose locker touches his.
The other four starters are clear across the room, in the opposite corner of the spacious clubhouse. Madison Bumgarner is always talking to someone, Matt Cain is the longest-tenured Giant and Jeff Samardzija — the other new guy — has become fast friends with Jake Peavy.
Cueto says there’s nothing to make of the clubhouse seating chart.
“They put me there at first,” Cueto said. “Then they asked me where I wanted to go. And I’m sure that if I wanted to be moved I can be moved, but I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
Buster Posey, who occupies a pair of lockers some 15 feet from Cueto, noticed that new No. 2 likes to keep to himself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“He is quiet, but he’s very relaxed and comfortable,” Posey said. “He’s definitely not shy. He’s kind of a happy personality, [but] he doesn’t make a whole lot of noise.”
One reason that Cueto doesn’t talk much is that he’s always thinking, always working.
On the nights he’s not pitching, Cueto is draped on the top rail of the third-base dugout, watching and sometimes even moonlighting as an unofficial instant-replay reviewer.
“He was the one who pointed out that [Troy] Tulowitzki missed third base [in Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays],” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s into the games and very serious about his work. But if you talk to Johnny, he opens up.”
Bochy knows the real Johnny, but it’s no easy task to reach that level. When the recorders are out and the cameras are rolling, Cueto is friendly but not talkative, generally limiting his responses to a couple of sentences or less.
The starter, who the Cincinnati Reds signed out of San Pedro De Macoris in 2004, speaks English. During postgame media scrums, Cueto often smiles, nods or even laughs when he hears a question he likes. But like so many other major leaguers who aren’t native English speakers, the soft-spoken veteran chooses to filter his answers through the team translator.
The idea is to ensure that Cueto never misspeaks, the unintended consequence is that nuanced answers prove elusive. Even with that extra filter, Cueto’s relentless dedication to his craft can’t be missed.
As Bochy tells it, during an April start against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cueto snuck down to the video room in the bowels of Chavez Ravine to watch a replay of an earlier at-bat. The manager said he couldn’t remember any starter ever doing something like that.
When reminded of the story, Cueto smiled, laughed, and explained that the in-game video session was a one-time occurrence.
“I don’t go look at my swings because that’s not my main thing,” Cueto said. “My main thing, my focus, is pitching — not hitting.”
It’s that attention to detail that has allowed Cueto, who’s generously listed at 5-foot-11, to blossom into one of the premier starters in baseball. Bochy praised the hurler for his “religious” work ethic.
“His running. His conditioning. He’s very dedicated.” Bochy said. “It’s obvious when you watch him go through his routine.”
Running. Cueto does a lot of it.
It’s 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon and Cueto — decked out in an orange-and-black sweatshirt and matching gym shorts — is running stairs in the lower bowl of AT&T Park, as his trademark dreadlocks bounce off his back.
“This is my job.” Cueto said of why he runs so much. “So, if I exercise every day, if I work out regularly, then when I’m pitching out there I feel a lot better.”
Cueto is a former All-Star, the 2014 National League Cy Young Award runner-up and now pitching in his ninth season in the bigs, but he remains an enigma when he takes the hill.
In addition to his ever-changing windup and six-pitch arsenal, Cueto’s high baseball IQ is a major reason why opposing hitters are never comfortable in the box.
“What I’ve noticed so far of catching him that I didn’t realize when I played against him is how well he reads opponents’ swings,” Posey said. “He can see a guy foul a ball off and then automatically know what he wants to do the next pitch.”
Sometimes, Cueto is even an enigma to himself.
“Part of [the strategy] is to keep the hitters off balance,” Cueto said. “When I’m over there I just try to invent. I just go crazy on the mound.”
In the clubhouse, Cueto is a totally different guy. He’s always under control. That’s how he’s managed to adjust so flawlessly to life with the Giants — his third club since the end of last July.
“This is like a rotation,” Cueto said. “You never know where you’re going to end up. This is baseball. Yes, it’s my third team but I’m happy to be here.”Bruce BochyBuster PoseyDave RighettiJohnny Cuetokarl buscheckMadison BumgarnerMLBSan Francisco GiantsSantiago Casillatroy tulowitzki