The Case For Johnny Cueto As The National League’s Best

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.


Cueto: 11-11, 4.41 ERA (30 starts)
Kershaw: 8-8, 2.79 (30 starts)

Cueto: 12-7, 3.64 ERA (31 starts)
Kershaw: 13-10, 2.91 ERA (32 starts)

Cueto: 9-5, 2.31 ERA (24 starts)
Kershaw: 21-5, 2.28 ERA (33 starts)

Cueto: 19-9, 2.78 ERA (33 starts)
Kershaw: 14-9, 2.53 ERA (33 starts)

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.

Johnny CuetoFurthermore, 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.