3/29/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Staff ace Cueto instills confidence in Reds
Right-hander has fine-tuned game to become one of the finest in baseball
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There was a time in somewhat recent Reds history when the ace or Opening Day starter could best be characterized as the least shaky.
In the early 2000's, Joey Hamilton, Jimmy Haynes and Cory Lidle working three consecutive openers. All went on to endure double-digit losses in each of those lean years. High-priced free agent Eric Milton never started an opener, but he was 16-27 with a 5.83 ERA during his 2005-07 tenure in Cincinnati.
Aaron Harang, who pitched five straight Opening Days, was the start of a renaissance of Reds pitching. But if any Opening Day starter symbolizes that the days of aces in name only are over in Cincinnati, it's the current one: Johnny Cueto.
"I like it, and I'm thankful for the opportunity and the confidence the team has in me to do it," Cueto said via a translator.
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Cueto, 27, will be starting his second consecutive Opening Day when he takes the mound on Monday vs. the Angels at Great American Ball Park. There was never any doubt it would be him.
Last season, Cueto was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 217 innings spread out over 33 starts. He set new career highs in wins and finished fourth in National League Cy Young Award balloting. He ranked third in the league in wins and ERA, fifth in innings pitched and was tied for first in starts with teammates Mat Latos and Homer Bailey.
"It's good to have Johnny leading it off and setting the tone for us, like he did last year," Latos said.
It was Cueto who led a Reds rotation that had four starters work 200 innings and all five make 30 starts.
"Mentally, he always had the ace mentality," said Cueto's main batterymate, catcher Ryan Hanigan. "He is always ready to go. He's strong and dominant. That's something to lean on. We have a guy that's going to go out there and bring it. He'll come at you. There were a lot of games that really worked well."
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
Cueto had the most wins for a Reds pitcher since Danny Jackson's 23 victories in 1988. No Cincinnati right-hander had won 19 since Jack Billingham all the way back in 1974. Cueto's ERA was the club's lowest since Jose Rijo in 1993.
Once a strikeout and power pitcher who racked up a lot of pitches quickly, Cueto has diversified his approach and become more economical. A couple of seasons ago, he refined his delivery to a Luis Tiant style that turned his back to the hitter and hid the ball more. More ground balls came as a result, and last season, he induced grounders 49 percent of the time according to Fangraphs.com, 11th most in the NL.
Cueto's average of 104 pitches per start ranked fifth among NL pitchers.
"With all of my pitches, I feel a lot more comfortable," Cueto said. "I've really matured and have gotten better."
Hanigan, who came into the league in 2007 and has seen Cueto's transformation, believes his mound presence and ability to control his emotions have made him a tougher foe for hitters.
For example, in 20 plate appearances with the bases loaded last season, Cueto's opponents were 0-for-17 with three RBIs.
"Whether he was getting hit or dialed in and dealing, he was pretty much the same in terms of his style," Hanigan said. "I think that makes a big difference. His adjustments were simply mechanical. It wasn't a lot of preparation work or lack of tempo or momentum all year. Everything was pretty good all year. He was attacking guys with good stuff. When things didn't go well, it was a matter of a pitch here or there or a little wild day, which happens to everybody, but not much else. He has the same attitude and demeanor."
"He can pitch to what he needs," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "That's the difference between him now and when he was younger."
Cueto has also fine-tuned other parts of his game over the years to become more dangerous. His pickoff move is crisp and his 11 pickoffs last season were one behind Major League leader Clayton Kershaw. All five baserunners attempting to steal on him were thrown out. He's also worked on becoming a better bunter.
"Johnny is one of the best competitors I have ever been around," Baker said. "When he first got here, he couldn't bunt. He couldn't spell bunt. Now he's one of the best bunters we have. He realizes all of these things can help him and help us win games."
The last time Cueto pitched in a meaningful game, the 2012 NL Division Series vs. the Giants, he was forced out eight pitches into the first inning because of a strained right oblique. Although the Reds overcame his injury and won the game, they lost the series in five games.
Cueto enjoyed a healthy spring and has no concerns of the injury bug striking him again in 2013.
"I didn't think about it," Cueto said. "What's happened last year is gone. It's in the past. I'm looking forward and working hard to win a championship."
That quest begins on Monday vs. the Angels, which happens to be a 4:10 p.m. ET afternoon game. Those conditions should also favor Cueto, who was 12-2 with a 1.99 ERA in 17 day games last season.
"He seems to be able to execute at a high level with really good stuff, which is very difficult to do," first baseman Joey Votto said. "You see Matt Cain, Cliff Lee -- those are the types of guys I would probably compare Johnny to.
"I have a ton of confidence whenever Johnny pitches. He prepares very well. He competes, I think, very well. We're very fortunate to have him."