The Cincinnati Reds are heading into the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs as National League Central champions and Johnny Cueto is poised to take the next step on his way to becoming the league's best pitcher.
The 26-year-old is having the best season of his career, but he is still being overlooked by the national media. He put himself in the Cy Young race for most of the season until a couple shaky starts in September diminished his chances.
With his team in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, the 19-game winner will be expected to carry his teammates deep into October. In 2010, the Reds were swept by the Philadelphia Phillies. The Reds are in better position to make a run this season.
Cueto gives the team what they lacked in 2010: a legitimate No. 1 starter. Mat Latos has also performed well behind Cueto, but the pressure will be on Cueto to lead the way.
Now that the team is older, Cincinnati has the experience to make it out of the National League Division Series.
A strong postseason by Cueto will put him in the driver's seat for the 2013 National League Cy Young race, so he will continue to come through for the team. Postseason baseball features baseball's best players and Cueto will shine in the national spotlight.
In the 2010 NLDS, Johnny Cueto got his first taste of playoff baseball.
The young pitcher got the ball in Game 3 against the Phillies and went head-to-head with Cole Hamels. Despite allowing only one earned run in five innings, Cueto was tagged with the loss as Hamels tossed a shutout.
In that game, Cueto allowed five hits and only walked one batter. His defense put him in an early hole by committing an error in the first inning and cost the team a run. After the rough opening inning, Cueto settled down and allowed only three hits the rest of the game.
The only mistake he made was to Chase Utley in the fifth inning. Utley made him pay by hitting a home run that barely got by Drew Stubbs' glove.
He only threw 83 pitches in five innings, so he could have gone deeper had he not been due up in the fifth inning.
Postseason experience is a valuable asset to have. Cueto went head-to-head with one of the best postseason pitchers in baseball, making that brief experience especially potent.
Now that he has proven himself in October, he will pitch with confidence as the Game 1 starter.
Johnny Cueto has been phenomenal this season, but he has been especially dominant against right-handed hitters. He is holding righties to an incredible .216 batting average, which is especially remarkable considering he pitches at Great American Ball Park.
Cueto has learned to pitch inside effectively. His fastball has great movement to touch the corners and makes it tough on hitters to pull the trigger. He also has great command of all of his pitches, so right-handers are kept guessing at what pitch is coming.
The main reason he is so tough on right-handed hitters is his twisting windup. He hides the ball in his body as he twists away from home plate and comes around quickly. Right-handed batters have a tough time finding the ball and picking up the spin of the baseball.
Most of the batters in the postseason will be right-handed, so his numbers against them will play a major role in October.
Pitchers need a defense they can rely on and Johnny Cueto has one of the best defenses in all of baseball behind him.
The Reds trot out three Gold Glove winners in the infield alone. First baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips and third baseman Scott Rolen are all great with the glove, and rookie shortstop Zack Cozart probably has a few Gold Gloves in his future.
Right fielder Jay Bruce has been robbed of a Gold Glove in each of the past two seasons. He has an arm that ranks among the best in the majors. Drew Stubbs is as good as it gets in center, which is why he will be in the lineup in the postseason. Ryan Ludwick is no slouch in left field, and Chris Heisey can make some plays with the glove at any of the outfield positions.
Cincinnati's defense needs to be much better than it was in the 2010 NLDS when it made seven errors. The defense is more experienced this time around and Cueto will not be afraid to pitch to contact.
Phillips is the best defender at any position in baseball. The outfield rarely allows a ball to drop in the gaps and the arms keep runners from taking an extra base.
With a defense like this, Cueto will be able to keep his pitch count low and stay in games.
Pitching in Great American Ball Park is no easy task and it is extremely difficult to keep the ball in the ballpark. Johnny Cueto has learned to pitch in his home stadium and avoid the long ball.
The right-hander has allowed only eight home runs at Great American Ball Park. His teammate Homer Bailey has allowed 21 at home this season. Bailey, Mat Latos and Mike Leake have all allowed more home runs just at home than Cueto has overall this season.
Cueto has learned to pitch down in the zone, which makes it tough for hitters to elevate the ball. His windup also contributes to his ability to keep the ball in the field of play. He has allowed more home runs with runners on than with bases empty due to his ability to hide the ball in his windup.
According to MLB.com, no pitcher in the top 26 of innings pitched this season has allowed fewer home runs than Cueto.
He has been even better away from home and the Reds are likely to draw a road game for Game 1 of the NLDS. The veteran pitcher has allowed only five homers away from Cincinnati this season.
The 26-year-old allowed only five long balls through the first four months of the season, including none in June and July.
Cueto is averaging a home run for every 15.2 innings pitched this season. His ability to avoid home runs has helped keep his earned run average down to 2.84 on the season.
Early in his career, Johnny Cueto tried to rack up the strikeouts. He has learned to pitch to contact in the last two seasons and the numbers are improving accordingly.
He has gone at least six innings in all but seven of his starts this season and at least seven innings in 20 of his 32 outings. The right-hander is fourth in the league in number of pitches thrown and he is among the league leaders in innings pitched this season.
Cueto has pitched a career-high 210 innings this year and he still has one start remaining. He leads a staff that will end up with four pitchers having 10 or more wins and more than 200 innings pitched.
His ability to control his pitch count will allow him to pitch deep into games in the postseason. He will be matched up with the No. 1 pitcher of the San Francisco Giants (unless the Reds manage to finish with the best record). Cueto will have the chance to go head-to-head with Matt Cain and earn national attention if he can outduel the Giants ace.
Being matched up with the ace of a staff is no easy task, but Cueto will have the opportunity to outperform some of the best pitchers in the league on baseball's biggest stage.
A deep run in the playoffs by Cincinnati will give Cueto multiple chances to prove he is an ace, so fans should expect him to be ready to go. Pitching deep into games will increase his chances of earning wins and becoming the main reason why the Reds make a run at the World Series.