Johnny Cueto is a 5-11, 220-pound ball of fun, with dreadlocks that whip in the torque of his several distinct deliveries and a personality that seamlessly blends professionalism, eccentricity and joviality.
“I really haven’t seen anybody quite do it the way he does it,” said Giants teammate Jake Peavy, a veteran of 15 major-league seasons.
Before Cueto — yesterday’s starter against the Yankees after Giants manager Bruce Bochy flipped his scheduled assignment with Jeff Samardzija — signed with the Giants for six years and $130 million in December and started the All-Star Game in July, he flustered his current teammates with his mix of deliveries, which he still employs. He shimmies one windup and turns his back to the batter during another. Cueto is also known to quick-pitch, slide-stepping and firing home before his opponent is fully set in the batter’s box.
“You’re like, ‘Is this legal? Can he do that?’ But then when he’s on your team, it’s like, yeah, keep doing it,” said Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, who has one hit in eight at-bats against Cueto. “When you’re facing it, it’s no fun. I just don’t remember getting a hit off him, and if I did, I’m sure it wasn’t hit very hard. You just don’t like facing him. I don’t think anybody does.”
But for Cueto, it’s just a way to stay loose — and effective — and have fun.
“I like to play with the batters,” a smiling Cueto said through a translator, “and when I say play, I mean put the ball where I want to and especially keep the hitters off balance.”
“He brings a very competitive nature and a looseness to the game,” Peavy said. “It’s been welcome around here. It’s nice to see somebody go out and have fun playing the game while still executing.”
And that’s the key: Cueto has executed. He is a 13-2 with a 2.53 ERA and got a no-decision yesterday, allowing one unearned run, six hits and a walk in six innings, and struck out nine.
“He’s very professional,” Belt said. “He goes about his business, makes sure he’s doing the right things the whole time. He’s pretty quiet, too. Nobody gets too crazy here, and that’s why I think he fits in with this mold.”
Bochy said Cueto has exceeded his expectations. Bochy knew he was adding an ace-quality starter, albeit one who struggled after the Reds traded him to Kansas City before last year’s nonwaiver deadline. He was hoping Cueto would at least be an innings eater who could routinely keep his team close enough to win.
“He’s been all that and more,” Bochy said. “He’s been a real joy to have on this club. He’s a lot of fun and you learn to appreciate his gifts and talents when you get a chance to see him every fifth day.”
For those who cannot see Cueto every five days, there’s always Instagram.
He posts frequently but with no regularity — that would not fit his persona. Follow his account, and you will find photos of Cueto riding horses, blowing massive bubbles of gum, getting kissed by dolphins and enjoying many a steak dinner.
“Johnny’s his own dude, man,” Samardzija said. “He’s not looking to follow any lines or this or that. He has fun, and sometimes things like that [Instagram] are a way for guys to get away or maybe show a different side of them that doesn’t come across on the baseball field.”
There are no dolphins or rib eyes on the mound with him, but teammates said they see his happy-go-lucky attitude, anyway, as he toys with batters and smiles inning after inning.
“It’s a lot of fun, too, because that personality carries over to the field,” Belt said. “It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to play behind.”