It was 1993, three years since The Sweep. Three years since Jose Rijo‘s right arm had hurled a baseball, hoisted a World Series MVP trophy, hushed the doubters that had shipped him to Cincinnati. Three years since a star started rising.
It was long enough ago that Cincinnati Reds success remained fresh. As if you could still smell the October grass. As if you could still taste the champagne. Because you could still count to five, where on the fifth day, Rijo would resurrect the pitches that had claimed a pennant.
But it was long enough removed that it didn’t feel the same. With Rijo came solace from a starker reality. Where players went down as casually as sac bunts. Where the strain of DL stints and scratched out rosters replaced the thrill of a wire-to-wire chase. Where the only guarantee was the fifth day.
Sound familiar? It should.
Because it was the last time Cincinnati saw anything like what Johnny Cueto is doing in 2014.
One cautionary tale later, 21 years separate two pitchers of striking resemblance.
Rijo grew up in the Dominican Republic’s San Cristobal, just 55 miles along the shore of the Caribbean Sea from the Cradle of Shortstops, San Pedro de Macoris. It was there that Cueto, lacking the agility of a middle infielder, discovered his ticket to The Big Show was his fastball.
Now he stands on different sand, on a different shore as the de facto ace of the Cincinnati Reds. But the river city fan base has seen this story before.
An established star-talent finding his stride. A 28-year-old pitcher reaching his peak. A four-syllable name that always ends in a rhythmic “O” and nearly just as often ends in an emphatic “W.” That’s Cueto circa 2014.
And it was Rijo circa ’93. A fact that tantalizes. A fact that terrifies.
As the team around him struggled, Rijo soared in 1993.
The season would end with accolades that seemed to foreshadow the brightest of futures. He led the league in strikeouts. He finished fifth in Cy Young Voting. Through hind sight, we know he finished with the best WAR (Wins above Replacement) in Major League Baseball.
And like Cueto, that season started with a bang. Rijo’s first nine starts saw him pitch over 60 innings, post an ERA of 2.97, a record of 5-1, an opponents’ batting line of .223/.277/.327.
Yet somehow, even that pales in comparison to Cueto’s 2014: the 72 innings pitched, the 1.25 ERA, the opponents hitting .135/.194/.249. But Cueto is unlikely to keep such a torrid pace. His .160 opponent BABIP (batting average on balls in play) seems unsustainable. What doesn’t seem impossible is for him to match Rijo’s ’93 –a season worth over 10 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.
Right now, Cueto is on pace to pitch 273 innings (Rijo threw 257). He’s set to strike out 288 batters (to Rijo’s 227) while only walking 69 (Rijo walked 62). And their rate stats even strike some similar chords; Rijo led the league in ’93 with his 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Cueto currently sits at 9.5.
If the season ended today, Cueto, like Rijo, would take home the strikeout crown, as well as leading the league in innings pitched, ERA, and hits per nine innings. But if the season ended today, Cueto, like Rijo, wouldn’t be enough to lift his team from a losing formula.
The 1993 Cincinnati Reds finished 73-89. Their offense suffered due to injuries. Barry Larkin, Hal Morris, and Kevin Mitchell alone missed a combined 196 games that season. Largely thanks to this, Rijo’s run support averaged out at 3.97.
The rotation also suffered from the injury plague. None of the three names after Rijo –Tom Browning, Tim Belcher, or John Smiley– made more than 22 starts. So the best performances from a rising ace couldn’t always stop the bleeding.
Sound familiar? It should.
Cueto faces the same scenario. Despite his outstanding performance, the team around him suffers. The offense, sans Jay Bruce (and now Joey Votto) and with Devin Mesoraco missing several games, has provided an average of 3.12 runs in Johnny Cueto starts. So despite allowing two runs or fewer in each of his trips to the mound, he’s taken two losses. And the team is taking more when he doesn’t pitch.
Like his opponents’ BABIP, such a system is unsustainable. The Reds can’t reach the postseason on the right arm of a single pitcher. Even Jose Rijo circa 1990 had a supporting cast.
But that’s not the echo of Reds history that should give Reds fans pause. It’s the memory of what such a burden can do to a rising star. Cueto, today, seemingly pitches with endless potential. The conversation has been raised: he may be the best pitcher in the game.
Rijo was there once, too. Until he wasn’t.
After that ’93 season, after over 250 innings, after his true arrival, he never returned. The next season, he’d pitch in 26 games. Only 14 the season after that. Then the star fell from the rarefied air he had reached. For five straight seasons, an aching elbow sidelined Cincinnati’s once-hero. He became their cautionary tale. By the time he finally returned to baseball in 2001, he was a shadow of his former self –a Reds reliever that never reclaimed 1993.
That doesn’t mean Cueto is destined for the same fate. His 273 inning pace should subside. His complete game streak should regress. And even in a season where arm injuries are running rampant (we miss you Jose Fernandez), an echo of history does not contain the force required to sever a ligament.
But fans should enjoy these fifth-day displays. Fans should realize their fortune for witnessing a rising star, a season worth remembrance, in real time. For every ascension isn’t always followed by a continued climb.
As opposing hitters facing Cueto’s cutter this season understand…sometimes, you just don’t see it coming.