Johnny Cueto’s performance reminds Giants what they missed, what they desperately need

SF Giants starter Johnny Cueto returned to the mound at Oracle Park in a successful debut on Tuesday

  • San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fourth inning at Oracle Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

  • Johnny Cueto #47 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Oakland Athletics during the first inning at the Oakland Coliseum on July 22, 2018 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

  • San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) gives a thumbs up to the crowd as they cheer for him after the top of the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Oracle Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

  • Johnny Cueto #47 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the top of the first inning at AT&T Park on July 28, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

  • Johnny Cueto #47 of the San Francisco Giants returns to the dugout during the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum on July 22, 2018 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

  • San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) delivers a pitch in the first inning of their baseball game against the Chicago Cubs at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

of

Expand
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

CLICK HERE if you are having a problem viewing the photos on a mobile device

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s not doing justice to Johnny Cueto to simply label him as a pitcher.

“He’s an artist,” catcher Stephen Vogt said.

“He likes to entertain,” manager Bruce Bochy said.

Part baseball player and part performer, Cueto returned to the mound at Oracle Park on Tuesday for the first time since undergoing surgery to repair a torn UCL in his right elbow 13 months ago.

The injury robbed the Giants of one of their best players and most consistent pitchers, but it also cost fans a full season of watching Cueto captivate their attention in a way only he knows how.

Pitchers throughout baseball have developed various tricks to tinker with their timing and throw hitters off balance, but no one takes the task as seriously as Cueto. The veteran right-hander shimmies on the mound, twisting and turning as he shows off new wrinkles to his delivery that aim to flummox and frustrate.

“I don’t think that gets talked about enough, how much that disrupts us as hitters,” Vogt said. “When pitchers can vary their rhythms and timing like that, it’s really impressive what he does.”

There’s a definitive rhythm to each Cueto start that lets everyone in the stadium know which player is in control of the tempo. And it’s never the batter.

After a 13-month hiatus from pitching in the major leagues, Cueto took the mound at Oracle Park and acted as if he never left. He needed 11 pitches to retire the Pirates in order in the first and just 69 pitches to navigate through five dominant innings of one-hit ball.

In a year in which home runs are leaving ballparks at a record pace and runs are easier to come by than ever before, Pittsburgh never threatened a pitcher who was in complete command throughout his outing.

“That was Johnny like we know,” Bochy said.

Cueto has said on various occasions that he never experienced any elbow trouble during a smooth recovery process from Tommy John surgery. After his fastball velocity dipped during the last half of 2017 and his nine starts in 2018, Cueto maxed out at 93.4 miles per hour against the Pirates and consistently hit 91 and 92 miles per hour.

Like Astros starter Zack Greinke and Dodgers Cy Young contender Hyun-Jin Ryu, velocity won’t dictate Cueto’s ability to succeed against major league hitters. The radar gun readings from Tuesday’s start are simply a sign that his arm is healthy and that like other veterans who are masters of their craft, Cueto is able to throw the ball how he expects to.

“The one thing that really blows my mind, whatever you call, he’s going to execute,” Vogt said. “It sounds funny, but he pitches. He pitches and he hits his spots.”

With two years and more than $40 million remaining on the six-year contract Cueto signed prior to the 2016 season, the Giants plan to rely on Cueto to serve as a rotation anchor. As Madison Bumgarner prepares to enter free agency and Jeff Samardzija enters the final year of his contract, there’s uncertainty surrounding the long-term future of the Giants’ rotation.

One solid start from Cueto won’t quell fears the Giants may have that he may not regain the once-brilliant form that turned him into one of the game’s top starters, but Cueto’s performance on Tuesday served as a reminder of why he should age gracefully.

The 33-year-old right-hander isn’t reliant on blowing fastballs by opposing hitters, as he instead utilizes pinpoint command of four pitches and an unparalleled ability to disrupt batters’ timing to succeed at his job.

After an agonizing layoff that forced the Giants to cycle through unproven arms in their starting rotation, Cueto is back. His right arm is healthy and he’s pitching again, but perhaps more importantly for the Giants, he’s performing again too.

“That’s my game,” Cueto said. “Every time I pitch, I just try to have fun.”

blog comments powered by Disqus