Eleven years ago, a 5’11”, 170-pound pitcher from Manoguayabo, Distrito Nacional, Dominican Republic named Pedro Martinez was completing the finishing touches on one of the greatest seasons ever by a pitcher. By mixing a high-90s fastball with a knee-buckling curveball, back-breaking slider and the game’s best changeup, Martinez was almost unhittable, finishing the season 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA and 0.737 WHIP while allowing only 128 hits (5.3 H/9), striking out 284 (11.8 K/9) and walking only 32 batters (8.88 K/BB) in 217 innings. He threw seven complete games, including four shutouts.
The 2011 season has seen another diminutive righthander from the Dominican Republic enjoy a terrific year. Johnny Cueto, who hails from San Pedro de Macoris, has made 18 starts for the Cincinnati Reds this season. The 25 year-old owns a record of 8-5 with a 1.94 ERA and 1.022 WHIP while punching out 78 (5.8 K/9), walking 37 (2.11 K/BB) and allowing 86 hits (6.4 H/9) in 120.1 innings pitched. While he has not nearly been as dominant as Martinez was in 2001, Cueto leads the National League in ERA, hits per nine innings and ERA+ (205).
The 5’10”, 220-pounder’s size is not the only parallel between himself and Martinez. Cueto also possesses an arsenal similar to that of Martinez. He throws a fastball that can touch the high-90s (average speed: 93.2 mph) in addition to an identical-looking changeup (average speed: 83.4 mph), plate-sweeping slider, late-moving cutter and a new curveball that he has just learned to throw this season. Cueto uses his size, birth country and pitch selection as motivation to be like Martinez.
“Pedro has been my inspiration, the person for whom I decided to stop playing outfield to become a pitcher,” Cueto once said. “One of my biggest dreams is to be able to meet Pedro in person, shake his hand and tell him that he has been my hero and role model.”
Cueto’s 2011 season has been helped a bit by luck, as opponents are batting .227 on balls hit in play, well below the league average of .300. However, he has been able to keep batters off-balance by relying on a fifth pitch, his curveball, which he is throwing nine percent of the time this year. To compensate, Cueto is throwing his slider 19.1 percent of the time in 2011, compared to a career average of 27.7 percent. Those secondary pitches, along with his changeup (thrown 10 percent of the time in 2011) and cutter (thrown 8.1 percent in 2011) to rely on his fastball less, throwing it 53.9 percent of the time this season, compared to 2009 season in which he threw it 62.2 percent of the time.
Trusting his secondary pitches is a sign that Cueto is maturing as a pitcher. The results from mixing things up on the mound have been extraordinary. He is keeping things on the ground much more, with a 1.63 groundball-to-flyball ratio, well above his career average of 1.11. Batters are hitting less line drives (19.4 percent in 2010 compared to 15.1 percent this year) and flyballs (32.3 percent this season compared to 38.9 percent last year). As a result, Cueto is inducing much weaker contact, as his groundball (41.7 percent in 2010 compared to 52.6 percent in 2011) and infield pop-up (8.6 percent last year compared to 11.5 percent this year) rates have increased while his home run rate (8.6 percent in 2010, 5.3 percent in 2011) has dropped.
Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season ended up being among one of the most dominant and unhittable ever for a pitcher. Eleven years later, another diminutive pitcher who also hails from the Dominican Republic is using a similar pitch arsenal to mow through hitters. Johnny Cueto uses Martinez as inspiration and is throwing all of his pitches to induce more groundballs and less-dangerous flyballs to keep hitters off-balance. Johnny Cueto may never be as dominant as Pedro Martinez, but his size, birth country, pitch arsenal and breakout 2011 season invoke memories of one of the greatest pitchers ever.