On Opening Day, Johnny Cueto went viral. He was not nearing 100 miles per hour like Gerrit Cole nor was he putting balls into orbit like Giancarlo Stanton. Instead he was carving up the best offense in baseball with the weapon of confusion.
Hitting is all about timing. Most pitchers disrupt this timing by changing speeds and locations, but Cueto adds the element of surprise by changing his pitching motion as well. His base windup mechanics feature a long, twisting leg lift resembling the motion of 1970s great, Luis Tiant. Over the course of a game he will speed that motion up, slow it down, add hitches, or even subtract the leg lift turn altogether.
To quantify this, I went back to the broadcast and recorded the time between his front leg lifting and the ball being released. 20 of the 63 pitches Cueto threw could not be counted with ESPN cutting back from graphics or flashbacks too late, but the case study’s findings are interesting nonetheless.
Along with having a longer motion out of the windup, Cueto was able to exhibit a wider range of times. This makes sense with not needing to manage baserunners in the windup. Despite this, Cueto remained consistent through the first ten pitches of the game. This was most likely just him getting settled. As he grew more comfortable, the quick pitches and long hesitations came into play.
A nuance to this strategy is targeting particular players. Marcus Stroman – a pitcher who also varies his motion – has spoken about studying hitters timing and rhythms specifically targeting those who he deems more susceptible. The small sample sizes makes it difficult to definitively say if Cueto targets and, if so, who.
That being said, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner had rougher times than most. In eight observable windups Bellinger faced, he was hit with four quick-pitches and the longest shimmy of the night. Similarly, Turner faced three hesitations and one quick-pitch in his four observable pitches.
Justin Turner has a high leg kick. While this adds power, it makes being on time difficult and rhythm crucial. Comparing footage of him late last year to opening night, I think Cueto’s effectiveness can be seen. The hesitation motions were causing Turner to flinch and he was forced to shorten his leg kick altogether.
As effective as he was out of the windup, Cueto got in trouble with runners on base. Out of the stretch, there was less leeway in timing variations. With hitters in rhythm, three consecutive batters reached after a fourth inning Corey Seager double. Cueto was fortunate to escape a bases loaded jam, but it reveals the flaw to the timing games: They get neutralized by base runners.
In a previous article, I discussed the quantification of deception through three dimensional release points. With that methodology, Cueto scored 30th percentile in 2019. The thing is, Cueto plays in the fourth dimension – time. The MLB’s new player tracking system, Hawk-Eye (used to create the animation above), will provide new levels of information in the analysis of pitcher mechanics. Soon the gimmicks of Cueto and Stroman will become more science than art.
Johnny Cueto does not have the stuff he used to, but remains competitive by keeping batters off balance. That kind of body control is difficult, but can go a long way in neutralizing the game’s best hitters and lengthening a career. Cueto is scheduled to pitch July 29th against the San Diego Padres.