Johnny Cueto likes horses.
When he’s not pitching, he’s riding horses.
Reynaldo López doesn’t like riding horses so much. But that hasn’t stopped Cueto, his workout buddy and good friend from before their days as current White Sox teammates, from trying to get López back in the saddle.
“He rides horses. But I don’t like that,” López told CHGO back in May. “(When I’m at Cueto’s farm in the Dominican Republic), I just sit down in the pool, just talking and having fun. But not riding horses. I don’t like that.
“He has like 10 horses, and they have names. It’s kind of like this is his life, horses everywhere. He’s riding horses for like an hour, and he’s like, ‘Bro, get back on, you’re going to be so glad after that.’
“But I don’t like that because my back sometimes is tight. It’s like (makes bumpy, jolted around motion). I’m like, ‘No, bro, no, I’m not going to do that.’ He’s like, ‘You’re scared, you’re scared.’ I’m not scared, but I don’t like riding horses.”
Whether it’s his love of horses, his Wall of Sound ambulance or his countless Instagram posts of him running throughout empty stadiums across the major leagues, Cueto has brought another big personality, another character, to a White Sox clubhouse full of them.
It helps, of course, that his tremendous efforts on the mound have allowed him to stick around.
The White Sox took a flier on Cueto during the spring, giving the 36-year-old World Series winner and one-time perennial Cy Young type a minor league deal and seeing what he could do. After some time showing them at Triple-A Charlotte, he joined the big league team and has been arguably its most consistent starting pitcher ever since.
Though Dylan Cease has been excellent enough to warrant a spot on the AL All-Star team (even if he hasn’t been given one yet), Cueto has been the definition of a steady presence that delivers the kinds of things teams crave from their starting pitchers: He’s given the White Sox a chance to win every time out, and he’s provided length, helping to save bullpen arms.
Cease might be the major league strikeout leader. Cueto is the only White Sox pitcher to record an out in the eighth inning this season.
All told, Cueto has a 2.91 ERA and has logged 68 innings in 11 outings. Only 10 of those outings have been starts, because he did another thing the team can’t stop talking about: He relieved Michael Kopech when the young fireballer made only eight pitches before leaving with an injury against the Rangers last month. Cueto threw five innings of relief in that one, impressing those inside the clubhouse perhaps even more than he did with his six innings of shutout ball at Yankee Stadium, his seven shutout innings in Houston or his eight scoreless innings last time out against the Tigers.
“He’s a pitching artist,” Tony La Russa said after the game against Detroit. “It’s this corner, that corner, that one, that one – and all from a delivery that hides the ball well. He very rarely misses over the plate … That’s changing speeds. By the time you slow your bat, he throws it by you. You quicken it up, and he gets you out in front.
“It’s just a beautiful thing to watch. From our side.”
Shocking? Maybe. Nobody signed Cueto until the White Sox handed him that minor league deal. No one, the White Sox included, felt strongly enough about what Cueto could do after some injury-impacted seasons with the Giants to give him a major league contract this past offseason.
But those who had been around Cueto before?
They’re not surprised.
“It’s no surprise for me because we’ve been practicing together,” López told me last week. “When he’s on the mound, he’s a different person and he’s smart out there. He has conviction. If he wants to throw a pitch, he’s going to throw it, no matter what.
“He’s been Johnny Cueto … For me, it’s no surprise what he’s doing right now. He’s one of the best.”
Indeed, “one of the best” has been an accurate descriptor of Cueto in the past. But before this season, the last time he had an ERA south of 4.00 was 2018, and that was two years after he made his most recent All-Star appearance and finished sixth in the NL Cy Young vote. He’s recaptured some old magic, though, and the White Sox have another old Cueto friend to thank.
Before taking over as the South Side pitching coach, Ethan Katz was the assistant pitching coach with the Giants, where Cueto was in that stretch of injury-affected seasons but still doing the sort of thing that made him successful earlier in his illustrious career. Katz took notice, and the two actually struck up a bit of a friendship as running buddies.
“We had the inside relationship with Ethan and him in San Francisco,” La Russa said. “When Rick (Hahn) first mentioned there was a chance (to sign Cueto), Ethan was all over it. And Johnny and him were very honest with each other. ‘Yeah, I’ve got a lot left.’ I think that connection with Ethan really helped.”
“Like Tony said,” Cueto said through team interpreter Billy Russo, “I felt like I still had something in the tank.”
Certainly that’s been the case, and the results aren’t the only thing that’s looking like the Cueto of old.
The wacky pitching style that has always been a Cueto hallmark has been on full display as he’s thrived with the White Sox. Not only has his stopping and starting, his ever-changing delivery and his ways of keeping hitters off balance allowed him to throw up zeroes on the scoreboard, it’s been damn fun to watch.
“He can go through the lineup and show you, on the same day, if he had six at-bats against him, he would show you something different every at-bat,” La Russa said. “He’s very smart. He’s one of those pitchers that can watch the hitter and get – (Greg) Maddux talks a lot about it – get a feeling of the guy sitting in or looking away or looking hard or soft just by how they look and the way they swing at things. Talented, great command, great arsenal. And he’s smart.”
Here’s a question: With Cueto throwing so much at every hitter he faces, is it as fun to catch as it is to watch?
“Oh yeah. It’s real fun,” Seby Zavala said. “We go through the game plan a couple hours. If we see something different, we change it up. So it’s all about throwing unexpected things. … ‘How are we going to get the hitter out? How are we going to mess with him?’”
“I don’t think it makes it hard, it just makes it sometimes more fun,” Reese McGuire told CHGO last week. “I think he just continues to get better, honestly. With each outing, it looks like he really has a game plan of how he wants to use his stuff. He’s got the confidence to throw any pitch in any count, any situation. It’s impressive to watch him. He keeps a really good pace out there, as well, so when he gets the ball back, he’s ready for the next pitch.”
But more fun than what goes on on the mound, even, is what Cueto has brought to the White Sox’ clubhouse.
Certainly the team’s intangibles and clubhouse culture have been focal points of late as the disappointing results continue for a team playing nowhere near its championship-level expectations. From all accounts, Cueto has been a positive presence.
“A lot of days he’s not pitching, he’s in here cheerleading,” La Russa said. “He’s exhorting guys and always pulling for guys when they come off the field. He’s very vocal, smart vocal. He talks about the game, talks about baseball in the clubhouse.”
Cheerleading apparently also includes a little in-game instruction.
“He likes to talk,” López told me. “He always tells us how to get out a hitter. Always. Sometimes he goes like, ‘Hey, you have to throw in, in! Throw a fastball in! Everything in!’ We’re like, ‘OK, OK.’
“For everybody here, they love Cueto because he’s always working, always. (Saturday), some pitchers were talking about how he was in the weight room for an hour just doing legs. And then before that, he was running up the stairs. They said, ‘That’s how he can throw six, seven innings like that.’”
Cueto might be a chatterbox, but even guys who would rather not adopt his approach have to credit his insight.
“Personally, I don’t like to run,” López said. “But when I’ve been practicing with him, that’s all I do. At the beginning of the season, I was throwing 94, 95. I started running, and he called me and said, ‘Hey, are you running?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And after that, I was throwing 96, 97, 98. And he called me from Triple-A and was like, ‘You see? That’s why you have to run every day. Now you’re throwing 99.’
“If a pitcher’s throwing hard, it’s because he’s running. That’s his mindset.”
Cueto’s confident advising has spread even beyond his area of expertise.
In addition to telling pitchers where to throw to get batters out, in addition to telling everyone to run, he’s offered insight to hitters. This is a guy who’s taken plenty of big league at-bats, of course, from his long tenures in Cincinnati and San Francisco. This is also a guy with a career .101 batting average.
But there he was in Anaheim, instructing White Sox hitters to hit the ball in the air on a night when the conditions allowed for balls to carry. It worked. The White Sox scored 11 runs and hit a couple homers in that game.
“One day I told him, ‘Bro, you’re not a hitter. You don’t know how to hit. Why are you telling him something? For a pitcher, you can say everything. But for a hitter?’” López said. “He was talking to (Yoán) Moncada and (Luis) Robert over there. And I started laughing. And he was like, ‘What the fuck are you laughing at?’ But it’s fun having him here.”
Indeed, in a season that’s spawned so much frustration, Cueto has been an undeniable bright spot. In general, the White Sox’ starting pitching has been pretty good, even if you would’ve thought something had gone horribly wrong if I told you in April that Cueto was one of the rotation’s two best pitchers. If there’s going to be a second-half turnaround for the South Siders, Cueto will need to continue to contribute the consistent efforts he’s turned in ever since suiting up for this team.
It might seem a bit laughable, considering the way the White Sox have played for three-plus months, to suggest they’re still capable of achieving their World Series level goals. But Cueto looks like he could be a key contributor, should they get the chance to play October baseball.
Plus, winning the World Series might be the only way to get López back on a horse.
“Maybe,” he said with a smile.
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