Cincinnati Reds' Johnny Cueto: Quite-O Debut!

Travis NelsonSenior Analyst IApril 7, 2008

Not that Rob Neyer's ego needs any more massaging, but his blog entry today about the Reds' young phenom, Johnny Cueto is spot-on.

When I did my preview of the 2008 Reds this spring I intended to give Cueto more ink, but I figured that unless they were desperate, the Reds would start him in AAA, so I didn't bother.

Good thing they were so desperate.



With regards to Cueto's MLB debut game last week (7 innings, one hit, no walks, and 10 strikeouts), Neyer refers to Bill James and some research the guys at Baseball Prospectus may did last year, indicating that if a pitcher had a really good start like that, it does not necessarily mean that he is, or will be, a great pitcher.

It just means that everything went right for him on that day.

Don Larson is a perfect example of this, as he had a lackluster career record, but happened to throw a perfect game in the World Series.



But then Neyer appropriately points out that this was not just any start, it was the kid's major league debut, and at just 22 years old. 

It's hardly fair to compare him with 29-year-olds or 34-year-olds that have some major league experience.


So I didn't.



Instead, I looked up everyone who pitched at least seven innings and struck out at least 10 batters in their major league debuts.

This brought the list down to just 14 pitchers, including Cueto.

The others are:

That's an interesting list.

Among the 14 pitchers, we've got one Hall of Famer, a borderline guy in Luis Tiant, and a bonafide star in J.R. Richard whose career ended early because of a stroke.

We've also got Tim Wakefield, who's no All-Star, but has been eating innings and winning a dozen or more games per year for more than a decade (whenever he's predominantly a starter, that is).

Pedro Astacio was probably better than you think, but didn't look like anything special because he spent half his career toiling in the worst run environment (Colorado in the late 90's) in history.

Don Aase was a relief ace for a few years, and Rudy May was useful if not spectacular.

On average, I think most pitchers would love to hear that they'll probably stick around the majors for 11 or 12 years, win 100 or more games with a better than average ERA, don't you think?

I took Dice-K out of the second set of averages because this is only his second year, which consists of exactly one start at this point.

Harang has at least been around long enough to establish himself. Those accomplishments alone would put him in pretty rarified air, though it will take us a decade to know whether it happens or not.


One thing that bodes well for Cueto is the fact that he struck out so many batters in his MLB debut. Cueto's Game Score of 81 is very good, of course, but it's hardly anything all that exciting, even for a debut performance.

Looking at others who have debuted since 1956, which is as far back as the searchable archives at Baseball-reference.com can go, there have been 29 pitchers with a game score of at least 80, including Marichal, Woodard, Tiant, Morehead, May, and Astacio.

Also, we see...

* Jeff Russell, eventual relief ace and two-time All-Star
* Dave McNally, four-time 20 game winner and three-time All-Star
* 2002 NL Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings
* Mike Norris, who should have won the 1980 AL Cy Young Award (though he was never anywhere near that good either before or after that season)
* 14-year veteran Mike Remlinger
* 13-year veteran Kirk Reuter
* 12-year veteran Lew Krausse
* 11-year veteran Danny Cox

Hard to complain about any of those guys' careers, though only Russell and McNally were very good for any length of time.

However, with those guys, we also get nobodies like Jim Cosman, Mark Brownson, Jeff Pico, Billy Rohr, Dick Rusteck, Kevin Morton, and Charlie Beamon, none of whom lasted more than three seasons in the majors, and many of those were not full seasons.

A few others on the list burned out in 4-8 years and never did much while they were still around.

But, because game scores depend on runs and hits allowed, not just strikeouts, there could have been more luck or coincidence involved in those guys' MLB debuts.

Cueto, on the other hand, retired almost half of the batters he faced on strikes, meaning that he wasn't relying on his defense, weather, or the ballpark configuration to get his outs.

So what does all this mean?

For one thing, it means that Cueto's expectations are that much greater now. Sure, he was awesome in Spring Training, but some of those guys are back bagging groceries for a living now, so we shouldn't take those spring numbers too seriously.

But the Arizona Diamondbacks won the NL West last season, and though their offense is nothing special in and of itself, it’s still a major league offense, which is improving.

Cueto's dominance of them in his first major league game bodes very, very well for his career.