With his third complete game and second shutout of the season, Cueto has only padded what was already the best stat line of any National League starter, and he looks like the clear front-runner for NL Cy Young honors here in the early going.
Cueto, himself, now believes he is the best there is in MLB, according to John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer:
It goes beyond him just being the best pitcher in the National League and perhaps all of baseball right now, though, as he has made history with his dominance through nine starts.
He has indeed been brilliant each time out so far this year, as he has put an injury-plagued 2013 season in the rearview mirror.
He has had the benefit of facing some below-average offenses in the Pirates, Mets, Rays, Braves and Padres, but he also kept the league's best offense in the Rockies at bay. But regardless of the opponents he's faced, his numbers have been very impressive.
|Johnny Cueto 2014 Game Log|
|Mar. 31 (STL)||7||3||1||1||8|
|Apr. 5 (NYM)||7||5||2||3||9|
|Apr. 11 (TB)||7||5||2||4||6|
|Apr. 16 (PIT)||9||3||0||0||12|
|Apr. 22 (PIT)||9||3||1||3||4|
|Apr. 27 (ATL)||8||3||0||3||11|
|May 3 (MIL)||8||3||2||1||10|
|May 9 (COL)||8||5||2||1||8|
|May 15 (SD)||9||3||0||2||8|
He already led the NL in ERA, WHIP and batting average against entering his latest start, and his shutout effort only furthered his lead in those categories. Here are his numbers, followed by his next-closest competitor in each category:
- ERA: 1.25 (Jeff Samardzija, 1.45)
- WHIP: 0.73 (Tim Hudson, 0.81)
- BAA: .135 (Jose Fernandez, .188)
Part of the reason for his success this year has been a spike in his strikeout rate, as he entered the season with a 7.0 K/9 mark but has been fanning batters at a 9.5 K/9 pace so far this year with 76 punchouts in 72 innings of work.
As a whole, his stuff has been great, but it's his sinker that has been the difference-making pitch. He's throwing it slightly more than he had in the past, and it's been significantly more effective.
|Pitch Efficiency Numbers|
|Sinker||20.1%, .284 BAA, .128 ISO||27.0%, .110 BAA, .041 ISO|
|Fastball||35.9%, .251 BAA, .179 ISO||23.0%, .162 BAA, .162 ISO|
|Cutter||7.2%, .265 BAA, .082 ISO||18.6%, .208 BAA, .302 ISO|
|Changeup||11.6%, .227 BAA, .151 ISO||15.9%, .081 BAA, .108 ISO|
|Slider||21.4%, .234 BAA, .128 ISO||12.3%, .350 BAA, .450 ISO|
|Curveball||3.7%, .237 BAA, .111 ISO||3.0%, .500 BAA, .000 ISO|
The NL remains a pitching-heavy league, so winning the Cy Young will be no cake walk, but there is no question Cueto has put himself at the head of the class through the first quarter of the season.
Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright finished 1-2 in the voting last season, and both are prime candidates once again. Wainwright continues to be a workhorse atop the Cardinals staff, while Kershaw has picked up right where he left off after missing the first month of the season with back problems.
Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez finished third in balloting last year and was off to a brilliant start again this season, but an elbow injury has forced him to the sidelines and he'll be lost for the season to Tommy John surgery.
Behind those three, veterans Tim Hudson and Ervin Santana have both been great with their new teams, trade-rumor magnet Jeff Samardzija is still winless on the year for the Cubs but has great peripheral numbers, and Tom Koehler has quietly been a stud for the the Marlins.
Then there are up-and-comers like Andrew Cashner, Wily Peralta and Julio Teheran, who are all off to hot starts as well, as they look to establish themselves as some of the league's top arms.
|NL Cy Young Candidates|
|Johnny Cueto, CIN||4-2, 1.25 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 18 BB, 76 K, 72 IP, .135 BAA|
|Clayton Kershaw, LAD||2-0, 1.74 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 1 BB, 25 K, 20.2 IP, .263 BAA|
|Adam Wainwright, STL||6-2, 2.11 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 15 BB, 56 K, 64 IP, .203 BAA|
|Tim Hudson, SF||4-2, 2.09 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 4 BB, 38 K, 60.1 IP, .206 BAA|
|Ervin Santana, ATL||4-0, 1.99 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9 BB, 43 K, 40.2 IP, .221 BAA|
|Jeff Samardzija, CHC||0-3, 1.45 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 16 BB, 45 K, 56 IP, .215 BAA|
|Tom Koehler, MIA||3-3, 2.57 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 22 BB, 30 K, 49 IP, .195 BAA|
|Andrew Cashner, SD||2-5, 2.35 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 17 BB, 47 K, 57.1 IP, .236 BAA|
|Julio Teheran, ATL||2-3, 2.20 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 16 BB, 46 K, 61.1 IP, .199 BAA|
|Wily Peralta, MIL||4-2, 2.05 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 10 BB, 39 K, 52.2 IP, .240 BAA|
That's just a brief overview of the NL Cy Young picture, and there are probably another dozen starters worthy of mention here, but my main point is that everyone is clearly chasing Cueto at this point.
Even with a fourth-place finish in the voting back in 2012, when he went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, Cueto is still rarely talked about as one of the game's premier starters.
Maybe a catchy nickname could help get him some national attention.
Teammate Zack Cozart, the Reds' starting shortstop, agrees that Cueto deserves more publicity than he has received to this point.
"I think it's about time he starts getting recognition nationally," Cozart told John Fay of the The Cincinnati Enquirer. "We know how good he is when he's healthy. For him to start getting some pub is pretty cool. We think he's the top pitcher."
If he keeps pitching like he has so far, the 28-year-old won't fly under the radar for long. He's been huge for a Reds team that has been bit by the injury bug and battled some offensive inconsistency.
Were he playing in a larger market he'd likely be the talk of the baseball world, but regardless of the attention he's received, he's the current clear-cut favorite for NL Cy Young honors.