There’s just something about a veteran pitcher whose stuff isn’t the same and yet finds a way. The joy is in knowing every opposing fanbase is screaming, “HE’S SPINNING IT ON HIS FINGER! JUST TAKE IT!” or some such derivative while he’s on the mound as they watch hitter after hitter be bewitched by baseball’s version of smoke, mirrors, trap doors, trick switches, and multiple doves. I’m sure those cheering against the White Sox are convinced they could hit whatever Johnny Cueto is throwing, and yet they watch the paid professionals go muttering back to the dugout.
In a day and age where more and more pitchers just get up there and throw it as hard as they can for as long as they can, it is a treasure to watch the rarer and rarer aging spell caster having to make it up as he goes, varying everything he can from motion to timing to velocity to movement to whatever else can be toggled.
Johnny Cueto has been a godsend for the White Sox this year, and has probably kept a season afloat the rest of the roster save Dylan Cease has been intent on hate-fucking into the dirt. He threw another eight innings last night, giving up only two runs to keep the White Sox around long enough to rally in the eighth when Dusty Baker got a little too cute, as is his way, and removed José Urquidy when all he’d surrendered was an accidental bunt to A.J. Pollock.
Cueto lowered his ERA to 2.78 on the season. And while there’s a touch of noise in that (FIP is 3.92 and his xERA is 4.05), Cueto has been just goofy enough to dance through the raindrops. He’s given up more than three runs in a start this year just once, and has only failed to complete six innings twice. He’s never been a huge strikeout guy; he’s only reached the 25 percent K-rate in his career once. And it sure looked like his last couple of years as a Giant would suggest he was through, with high ERAs and him only throwing 114 innings last year.
But Cueto has found himself on the Southside, and he does it by doing everything before even throwing the pitch. Cueto will quick-pitch, pull a Tiant, pause in mid-motion, and start his motion over, sometimes in the same AB before throwing one of the five or six pitches he’s got in his arsenal. He’s basically Major League’s Eddie Harris come to life, without any of the gunk or snot on the ball, as far as we know. He kind of has to put on the magic show, as he’s lost three MPH off his fastball since his heyday, though this year he has been able to add some sweep to his slider. He makes up pitches on the fly.
Cueto is probably a lesson to all the younger pitchers getting by on electricity now, as most will eventually break down as Cueto did. If they want to stick around, they’ll need to take cues from The Prestige as Cueto has. If it feels like he’s inventing stuff on the mound or doesn’t know what he’ll do until he does it, it’s probably because he is and doesn’t.
In most sports, when you get old you get shuffled off. Even position players have a hard time staying in full-time roles too far beyond their 30th birthday. Of the top-20 hitters in fWAR this year, only Paul Goldschmidt is older than 32. But once or twice a week, you can watch Cueto, who’s been through it all, acting like a kid at recess on the mound, reaching into his endless bag of tricks and grinding out another way to get a hitter out, probably with a pitch that didn’t move that way the last time he threw it. He has been this year’s court jester spliced with Merlin, and it’s been a joy that might just get the White Sox into the playoffs.
Not bad for a guy who was on the street in spring training. But then, the best wizards come from the oddest places.
Speaking of wizardry, here it is in the other direction:
Just because you can, Javy, doesn’t mean you should. Though we now know he could defect to cricket if it comes up.
We’ll cap it by jumping over to the Premier League, where Luis Diaz also showed off some recess-like activity to pull Liverpool level. He only beats five guys here before unleashing a defiant missile that came close to ripping open a wormhole:
Wasn’t enough for Liverpool though, who couldn’t overcome Darwin Nunez’s idiocy that put them down to 10 men which meant only a 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace. But if you’re going to get a disappointing draw, you might as well do it artfully.