Johnny Cueto Is a Legitimate Cy Young Contender in 2012

Ryan NolanCorrespondent IFebruary 29, 2012

CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 28:  Johnny Cueto #47 of the Cincinnati Reds delivers the pitch during the game against the Washington Nationals on August 28, 2011 at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio.   (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
John Grieshop/Getty Images

The starting rotation in Cincinnati has started to get some long overdue respect from sports analysts and major broadcasters like ESPN.  Sadly, it's not due to the quality of home-bred stars like Mike Leake or Johnny Cueto.  Instead, it's the hype around a big trade for Padres' ace Mat Latos.  It's been more than a little upsetting.

The 2011 Cincinnati Reds had a disappointing season.  Finishing 17 games back of the Milwaukee Brewers, they no doubt failed to live up to the expectations following a divisional championship.  But there were bright spots.  Zach Cozart proved he can be an outstanding shortstop.  Juan Francisco showed how hard he can hit the long ball.  Joey Votto showed no signs of slowing down.  And Johnny Cueto revealed himself to be the ace of the Cincinnati pitching staff.

Statistically, Cueto was one of the best pitchers in all of the majors.

Stat 2.31 ERA 15.35 pitches/inning 1.09 WHIP 169 ERA+ .249 BABIP 53.7% GB .214 BAA
MLB Rank 2nd 16th 15th 2nd 5th 11th 10th

Simply outstanding.  Skeptics will point out that he didn't qualify in any of these categories because he didn't throw enough innings.  I'll admit they're right, but recognize that Cueto was just six innings away from qualifying.  That's one start.  If they were six scoreless innings, he would have overtaken Clayton Kershaw as baseball's ERA leader.

And yet, Cueto went largely unnoticed by the sports community.  His numbers, overwhelming to some like myself (he beat Roy Halladay in five of the above seven categories), were unnoticed. 

His performances, worthy of at least some note in any Cy Young discussion, were ignored.  Even before it was clear that Cueto would not meet the inning qualification, he was written off as a Cy Young contender.  That changes this year.

You have to ask yourself how a pitcher who was so dominant could get through such an impressive season without his name once being mentioned as a potential Cy Young recipient.  The answer is one of his unlisted stats: wins. 

With just nine in 2011, Cueto was not even among the top 100 pitchers in terms of wins.  For most sports analysts, the single most important statistic is wins. Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw,and Roy Halladay, all pitchers Cueto was statistically on par with, all had 10 or more wins than Cueto.  That's a difference maker.

In 2012, if Cueto can get 15 or more wins, he'll be a serious Cy Young contender.  Although most projections show Cueto regressing, I don't see the foundation for the projections.  With few exceptions, Cueto's numbers have improved every year across the board. 

His very low BABIP (batting average on balls in play), a fluke according to most analysts, has gone down every year since he joined the majors.  He leaves over 75 percent of runners on base, and that percentage continues to climb. 

His ground ball rate saw a big increase in 2011, important in the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark.  Opponents continue to hit less and less often against the small right-hander.

Why would we expect regression?  The infield around Cueto will be one of the best in baseball.  Three of the five infield players are Gold Glove winners.  At shortstop will be the young Zack Cozart, who, in just 77 innings, racked up a UZR of 4.1. 

The outfield is pretty solid, too, with potential Gold Glove winners in center and right field.  With such an incredible defense, Cueto will get a lot of help.

And what about the hitters?  At the end of last season, Brandon Phillips made a strong case for being the leadoff hitter, where he bats over .300.  Cozart, who batted .324 with a pair of home runs in his 37 at-bats, will return. 

The 2010 MVP, Joey Votto, will be back and will hopefully have better protection in the form of either a healthy Scott Rolen or a focused Jay Bruce.  The Reds were one of the best scoring teams in baseball last year and will definitely be so this year.

I fully expect Cueto, with the quality defense and hitting all around him, to continue to dominate on the mound.  His unique wind up baffles hitters and will for all of 2012.  He's a mature, calm, efficient pitcher who will make his name known this season.