PHILADELPHIA -- Johnny Cueto sat patiently at a round table just inside the Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse Saturday afternoon, dealing out the cards. The group around him kept changing, as guys came in and out of batting practice.
Had it been the following day, Cueto would have been huddled with catcher Brayan Pena in front of a monitor, scouring film of his upcoming opponent. Earlier in the day, Cueto completed his between-starts bullpen session. "People don't know, behind the scenes, how well he prepares," Pena told me Saturday afternoon.
But for now, Cueto allowed himself a bit of relaxation, in what so far has been his signature season. And just as it has been on the field, no one could beat him at cards. One by one, guys drifted away, until the battle remained just Cueto and Billy Hamilton. Finally, Hamilton threw down his cards, smiling at Cueto. "This just isn't happening," Hamilton said. Cueto wins again.
Hamilton's resignation pales in comparison to some of the things Pena has heard behind the plate this season from hitters, coming to the same conclusion Hamilton did. "As a hitter, it has to be very tough. I hear them saying stuff, you know, I can't say here and now," Pena added, laughing. "You hear them screaming, getting mad at themselves. That's when you know, that guy over there is doing something special. When you see big league guys frustrated, because they can't hit the guy."
Cueto's 2014 season has been absurd, with a 1.25 ERA through nine starts, averaging eight innings per outing. And the consistency is breathtaking: no starts fewer than seven innings, no starts allowing more than two earned runs. And if the ERA is out of line with what produced it -- his xFIP is a still-stellar if less flashy 2.70 -- there's no mistaking Cueto's evolution as a pitcher.
The surprising part is how willing an already-successful Cueto was to try to improve. It's not as if he was some mediocrity on the mound prior to this season. Since his rookie season in 2008, just 40 pitchers, have logged 1,000 innings. Cueto's ERA+ among them is tenth. That places him ahead of more famous names like Matt Cain, David Price, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester. In fact, the most recent alteration to Cueto's repertoire began following after the 2012 season, in which Cueto won 19 games, pitched to a 148 ERA+ and led the Reds into the playoffs, finishing fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting.
"I'm the kind of person, I always like to try new things," Cueto told me through his translator. "I'm used to, when I go out to the game, I create things."
Or as a member of the Reds staff put it: "Pitching, sport, is an art. It's not such a book rule, 'This is how it's done.' Nolan Ryan is an artist. Luis Tiant is an artist. And [Cueto] is an artist. Because you cannot repeat what he's just done. This is not out of a cookbook." It's true. If someone made recipes from Cueto's repertoire, who else would it be for?
He has a terrific curveball. He's throwing it for strikes 40 percent of the time this year, a third of the time over the past three years. It's his sixth pitch, based on usage. It checks in behind his four-seam fastball, his sinker, his changeup, his slider, and the most significant addition, his cutter. Back in 2012, Cueto only threw his cutter 4.56 percent of the time, and all too frequently, he wasn't quite sure where it was going, throwing it for strikes 18 percent of the time, balls 43 percent of the time. That changed in 2013. He threw the cutter more than 21 percent of the time, 29 percent of them for strikes. That's slightly better (and more frequent) than he's using it in 2014, though it is essentially the same pitch.
"Well, it's a pitch that he throws on the right side of the rubber, so he creates a natural lane for the ball," his manager (and former pitching coach) Bryan Price told me on Saturday. "That's why pitching coaches like their right-handed pitchers on the right side, left-handed pitchers on the left side, because [when] the ball leaves your hand, it's a ball. And the deception can be, like with the cutter, ball-ball-ball-ball-ball -- strike. Or it can be ball-strike-ball, and that's on the other side of the plate. And that's the deception of pitching."
That deception, paired with a delivery that makes picking up the baseball out of his hand difficult to begin with, has led to a spike in Cueto's strikeout rate, but much of that spike comes not from whiffs, but from hitters freezing as strike three goes by. Batters are just tossing their cards on the table and walking away, like Hamilton.
Back in 2012, Cueto's primary pitch with two strikes was his four-seam fastball, essentially the easiest pitch for a hitter to track, 32 percent of the time. He threw his sinker and change around 19 percent apiece with two strikes, his slider 18 percent in that spot. And his strikeout rate was around 7 per nine innings, good but hardly elite. This season, with two strikes, he goes to the four-seamer less than 18 percent of the time, trailing his sinker (30.45 percent), changeup (24.81 percent), and cutter (20.68 percent). The changeup is his best swing-and-miss pitch with two strikes, but incredibly, when he throws his cutter in that situation, it's a strike more than 36 percent of the time. And yet, less than 11 percent of the time, it's been a swinging strike.
The four-seamer and the sinker are reliable strategies for Cueto with two strikes, too. As Cueto put it, "I throw every pitch I have. I don't have a set table for how I pitch. I just go out, every single time on the mound, and I show everything to them. I try to trick them ... You can't think about one pitch. If you think about one pitch, that's what they're gonna be looking for."
It helps that Cueto is so well prepared to deploy all of those pitches, of course. He and Pena watch the upcoming opponent three or four times between starts, picking up tendencies of hitters, seeing which pitches worked against certain players, even noticing what it seems like a hitter was looking for at certain counts. Cueto and Pena continue that dialogue into the pregame bullpen session around two hours before each start. "When he's warming up, we do a lot," Pena said. "We're not just getting loose. So we think about certain hitters. Now, so-and-so is hitting, so we know how we're gonna attack the guy. And it makes a difference later, trying to be on the same page almost every time."
Clearly, Price has no interest in altering this routine for Cueto, noting in passing on Saturday that while he expects Devin Mesoraco to be the team's regular catcher, "Pena will most likely continue to catch Johnny Cueto. That's been a very good relationship."
Beyond Pena, beyond even the cutter, is a factor that's plagued Cueto throughout his career: his health. Cueto is a max-effort pitcher, both in the mechanical sense and in the more literal sense. He vigorously insisted he hasn't altered anything about his routine or prep to try and limit injuries, simply returning to a mantra: "I work hard." It's frightening to think that all this progress could be sidelined at any moment by another malady. Then again, perhaps it is appropriate that in 2014, a season where seemingly every high-profile pitcher has been hit by a major injury, it is Cueto's turn to be healthy for once.
"The thing with Johnny, every year but 2012 -- 2012, he had an oblique [injury] in the playoffs -- but every year from his first year in '08 through 2013, he's had an injury that's typically been around his shoulder, his lat, bicep, areas like that," Price said. This season has offered Cueto the chance to deploy the repertoire he'd cracked in 2013, without the health problems that limited him to 11 starts last season.
When asked, Cueto didn't back down from comments he made last week about being the best pitcher in the National League. "There was a question that was asked to me, based on the numbers," Cueto said. "And I said, 'Yeah, I'm the best, based on the numbers.'
"But I don't want to talk about who's the better pitcher. It's all about me. If you ask me, I'm going to tell you, I am the best. Because you have to convince yourself that you are the best. You always have to tell yourself, I am the best, I am the best. I cannot say, Tomas is a better pitcher than me," Cueto said, referring to his translator. "I'm going to say, I am the best. That's the reality. That's who I am."
It's that drive, really, that convinced a 19-game winner to continue growing and changing. It wasn't the first time he did, and at age 28, it's hard to imagine it'll be the last time, either. "It's funny, because they're not at all similar in pitching style, but I really feel like Johnny Cueto and Jamie Moyer are very similar, in the sense that they're always finding ways to get better," Price said. "And if you look at Johnny Cueto from 2008, fastball-slider-changeup, mostly fastball-slider. Didn't handle the bat, wasn't a good bunter. I don't know how he held runners.
"But I know that from that time, to where he is now, he probably is our best sacrifice-bunt guy in our starting rotation," Price continued. "He's got the best pickoff move, the quickest feet in the National League, for me, as a right-handed pitcher. He throws a curveball now. He throws one of the better changeups. He throws the cutter. He throws the comeback sinker. These are all an evolution from the time he signed to 2014. And not because of me, or [pitching coach] Jeff Pico, or Dick Pole, or any other guy who's worked with him. But because he's chasing the greatness."