Johnny Cueto: the pitcher so frustrating he makes hitters want to punch strangers

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·MLB columnist
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Ian Kinsler wanted to punch me in the face.

I had asked him just how much the varying deliveries of Johnny Cueto really affect hitters, and with the wound of getting shut out by Cueto still raw and fresh, Kinsler did not exactly cotton to the line of questioning. Because he is a professional, and an educator, Kinsler stood up and decided to demonstrate. And the best way, he figured, was with his fists.

Johnny Cueto plays a unique game with hitters. (Getty)
Johnny Cueto plays a unique game with hitters. (Getty)

He balled up his fingers, cocked his right arm back and held it there for a beat, then two, before extending his arm inches from my nose.

"If I punch you like this three times in a row," he said, pausing to reload his fist, only exploding forward almost instantaneously instead of holding it back, "and then I go: Boom! Is it the same? Because it's coming from the same spot?"

Nobody in baseball today, and nobody in quite some time, has thrown a baseball like Cueto, the 29-year-old right-hander acquired by the Kansas City Royals to anchor their rotation during what's becoming an extended coronation in the American League Central. The giddiness during his first start at Kauffman Stadium on Monday reached amusing heights as Kansas City got a glimpse of what teams across the National League had seen from Cueto this season: four distinct deliveries with devastatingly similar release points, trouble for even the most seasoned hitters.

Cueto is like a broken metronome, fast and slow and in between with no discernible pattern. Watching him pitch is a treat not just because he attacks hitters with fastballs and sinkers and cutters and curveballs and sliders and changeups but can throw all of them from his varying deliveries, meaning hitters walk to the plate understanding they've got a 1-in-24 shot at guessing what Cueto is throwing.

That's not a punch to the face. It's more like a kick somewhere else.

The Traditional

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When Johnny Cueto debuted as a 22-year-old with the Cincinnati Reds in 2008, he looked like a reasonable facsimile of just about every other right-handed pitcher in the major leagues. Lift front leg, drive back leg, open hips, rotate torso, fire arm. It was delivery-by-numbers, and that was fine. Cueto's fastball lit up radar guns, and the Reds considered him a future rotation linchpin.

And that is all well and good. There is nothing wrong with a traditional delivery. Some of the best pitchers in the world use it to great success. Every so often, Cueto uses it, too. Most of those come out of the stretch, when he takes a standard stride toward home plate and unfurls a pitch that looks normal, particularly compared to how he throws the majority of the time.

The Tiant
Throwing a baseball takes an exquisite amount of timing, the synchronization of muscles and bones and tendons and ligaments that work in concert to create a propulsion engine out of the human body. Even the slightest issue can wreak havoc on a pitcher's delivery and send him into the video room staring at side-by-side footage of his old, effective self and the new, fruitless version. Pitching is little more than a battle to minimize these defects.

Some pitchers, whether out of greed or hubris or simply a better understanding of how the arm works, choose to actively seek this change in hopes of perfecting it and presenting something different. Satchel Paige slowed down his delivery as though to look like he was going through life at 1,000 frames per second and then blast forward with what he called his "hesitation pitch." Hideo Nomo wound his body like a contortionist before sending the ball plateward.

The king of unique deliveries was Luis Tiant, the Cuban right-hander whose No. 23 flashed toward hitters just before the ball followed. Tiant twisted his body across his right leg so hard that the back of his uniform faced home plate before he uncoiled himself toward it and fed his fastball up and down, side to side, with all sorts of movement generated by his low-three-quarters arm action. In a vacuum, doing as Tiant did makes zero sense whatsoever; it is a wildly inefficient motion, the benefits of it seemingly outweighed by the difficulty in adding movements to something hard enough as is.

For Johnny Cueto, adopting The Tiant grew out of necessity and pragmatism. His traditional delivery caused the left side of his body to fly open and put undue stress on his arm. During spring training in 2010, Cueto started experimenting with a Tiant-like hip-turn – not quite as extreme but plenty noticeable – and grew to love it. While others have employed it with similar regularity – Felix Hernandez and Anibal Sanchez are among The Tiant's greatest adherents – none uses it quite like Cueto.

The Tiant is like his fastball. He doesn't utilize it all the time, and because that's the case, the idea that Cueto might use another delivery exists in the minds of hitters who already have enough to worry about with six distinct pitches.

"Good pitching is good pitching because it disrupts hitters' timing," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "A lot of pitchers will do that with changeups, they'll do it with sinkers, they'll do it with curveballs, sliders. Johnny does it with all those, plus his delivery."

Of course, The Tiant wasn't enough for Cueto. Once he honed it, he figure he could try something else, something that nobody – not even El Tiante himself – ever dared try.

The Rocking Chair
On the 96th pitch of his start last month against the Washington Nationals, Johnny Cueto turned for what looked like a regular Tiant and paused. His right shoulder dipped. Then he did the same with his left shoulder. Then he shook the right again. Before Cueto released his pitch, the hitter, Ian Desmond, had taken his left hand off the bat and lifted his left leg to peel away from the batter's box. When Cueto's 82-mph slider crossed the plate for strike one, Desmond wasn't offering at it. He was adjusting his nether regions.

Over the next month, Cueto would name this breakthrough The Rocking Chair and begin to employ it more, much to the consternation of those facing him. It is simultaneously maddening and hysterical, this short, plump right-hander's shoulders doing The Worm mid-delivery before he fires pitch after elite pitch.

"It's hard not to laugh sometimes," Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez said. "But you're in battle, and he's throwing 95 with a lot of run, a lot of sink. So you can't laugh. The shimmy one – he did it on me, and the whole crowd starting laughing."

Inside the Tigers' dugout, they found it less humorous. Cueto neutered them all night with his panoply of pitches and deliveries, and after the game, manager Brad Ausmus wondered aloud if Cueto was violating Rule 5.07, which states: "The pitcher shall stand facing the batter, his pivot foot in contact with the pitcher's plate and the other foot free. From this position any natural movement associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without interruption or alteration."

Technically, Cueto wasn't interrupting his delivery, not any more than Dan Haren or Jorge De La Rosa or others whose includes a pause. Were Cueto inclined to argue, he could say The Rocking Chair is the epitome of natural movement, the beauty of pitching inspiration for his body to groove as only nature could intend.

"Honestly, I don't really care if Cueto does it," Ausmus said, and perhaps that's true. Hitters do, though. All it takes to see that is one stare at Ian Kinsler's knuckles.

The Quick Pitch

Johnny Cueto's fourth delivery is his quick pitch. It's not a classic quick pitch, like the one Rule 5.07 deems illegal. It is quick because The Tiant and The Rocking Chair are the antithesis of quick, and when Cueto pantomimes like he's going to do either and instead jets to the plate and completely destroys any sense of timing a hitter was trying to establish, well, that's why Kinsler used the analogy he did.

"He does a good job," Kinsler said. "He understands how to mix up his delivery and what pitches he wants to use from each variation. He's got a good sense of hitters' timing."

Getting Cueto to talk about his deliveries isn't easy, and maybe that's by design. He has managed to balance 24 variations of a pitch without in any way tipping one. The hitters can't figure out which delivery he's going to use, let alone which pitch he's going to throw, and one recent day, his response to an inquiry was: "No hablo inglés."

So the secret sauce to Cueto's excellence for now remains just that: a recipe known by him and only him. Kauffman Stadium will overflow for his next start Saturday, and a national TV audience on Fox Sports 1 will partake of his splendor, and maybe even the dreadlocked baby will return for another go-around. All so they can see The Traditional, The Tiant, The Rocking Chair and The Quick Pitch, the finest four-of-a-kind outside of Vegas, the funniest kick in the you-know-where in baseball today.

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