Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto might be the best pitcher in baseball without an innings limit.
Cueto can't throw an 80 mph knuckleball and he's never had a perfect game. But that's not to say Cueto doesn't have flair.
Quite the contrary. Cueto has plenty of swagger.
Those who have watched Cueto pitch compare his unorthodox wind-up to that of Red Sox great Luis Tiant.
When it comes to Cueto's hairstyle, it looks like he sat down next to Lil' Wayne at the barber shop and said "I'll have what he's having."
And how many guys can say that they've kicked Chris Carpenter in the head?
The dude's got style and this year, all those style points have finally translated into victories for the 26-year-old. Sixteen of them in fact. That puts Cueto in a four-way tie with Gio Gonzalez, David Price and Jered Weaver for the major-league lead.
Wins haven't been the only thing that's come easily for Cueto this season. His 2.47 ERA in 26 starts is the lowest in the National League and second-best in the bigs (Price has a 2.28 ERA in 25 appearances).
It may seem like Cueto is new to the fantasy scene but that's far from the truth. Cueto posted an ERA of 2.31 last season and since 2010, he carries an overall ERA of 2.84 in 516 1/3 innings pitched. That's better than recent Cy Young winners Cliff Lee (3.03), Tim Lincecum (3.64) and CC Sabathia (3.20) over that span.
At first glance, it's tough to pinpoint what exactly has made Cueto so overpowering this season. His strikeouts per nine-innings ratio is pedestrian (7.16) and nobody in the National League has plunked more hitters than Cueto has in 2012. The right-hander hasn't been particularly efficient (15.9 pitches per inning) either and his groundball to fly ball rate (0.98) falls into the "good but not great" category.
Cueto has, however, excelled in two major areas this season.
First, he's been phenomenal at home, collecting nine wins (tied for most in the majors) and a 2.26 ERA in 11 appearances. Opponents are hitting a measly .229 against Cueto at Great American Ball Park this season.
Second, he's been lights out against right-handed hitters. Righties are batting a dismal .200 in 300 at-bats versus Cueto in 2012. And in the rare instances when right-handed batters have made contact with Cueto's pitches, they haven't shown much power. Right-handers have combined for a .293 slugging percentage against him this season.
Consistency has also been a staple of Cueto's performances throughout the season. Cueto has not given up more than five runs in any of his starts and his ERA has never climbed over 3.50 for a single month. Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Jordan Zimmerman are the only starters in the National League who have earned more quality starts than the 19 Cueto has produced this season.
Damage control has been an area of expertise for Cueto as well. Few pitchers in the major leagues have been as good at getting out of jams as Cueto has this year. With runners in scoring position and two outs, Cueto has held the opposition to an amazing .245 clip in 53 at-bats. Only one of those hitters has left the yard against Cueto.
Cueto has shown a real knack for delivering in high-pressure situations, especially when the bases are loaded. In that situation this season, hitters are a combined 0-for-16 versus Cueto with four strikeouts. Overall, batters are hitting a mere .208 in three-ball counts against Cueto.
You'd think Cueto would get exhausted having to pitch his way out of jams on a near nightly basis but that hasn't been the case. Some of Cueto's finest moments this year have occurred late in the game. Opposing batters are hitting .170 against Cueto this season after he has already thrown 60 pitches. I guess Cueto really does save the best for last.
Cueto, who scattered two runs over five innings Thursday night against the Philadelphia Phillies, is gearing up for a run at history. Over the last 10 seasons, only four starting pitchers have finished back-to-back seasons with an ERA under 2.50. If Cueto can trim a tenth of a run off of his current ERA, he'll join his idol Pedro Martinez as one of two pitchers since 2000 to have earned an ERA south of 2.40 two years in a row.
The similarities between Cueto and Martinez don't end there. Both are from the Dominican Republic, neither one stands taller than 5-foot-11 and each has a history of throwing inside to opposing hitters. The two aces share a similar feisty demeanor and both have been involved in major bench-clearing incidents over the last decade (Martinez threw down New York bench coach Don Zimmer in 2003, while Cueto kicked Carpenter two seasons ago).
If Cueto can continue to find his inner Pedro Martinez, he should remain a factor in the fantasy game for a long time. Even if Stephen Strasburg or R.A. Dickey beat Cueto out for the National League Cy Young Award this season, there's still an awful lot to like about this kid. Unless you're Carpenter, of course.
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