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Reds Pitcher Johnny Cueto – 3rd Best Major League Debut by a Dominican Starter

Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto in his major league debut

Before 22-year-old right-hander Johnny Cueto took the mound for his major league debut on a rainy Thursday afternoon, Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker told him ‘Con calma y confidencia’.  “It means confidence and be calm,” Baker explained.  “And he was”. 

Indeed, for the first five innings Cueto was perfect, and he struck out ten without a walk while allowing just one hit in a seven-inning stint.  Cueto’s fellow Dominican Francisco Cordero, who saved the 3-1 win, said “Seeing his face, you can tell he’s not worried about nothing.”

Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes, who went 0-4 with three strikeouts, said “Obviously, he’s got great stuff.  Fastball he spotted on both sides of the plate, good breaking ball, threw his changeup.  He’s got everything.”

Justin Upton, whose home run was the only hit off Cueto, observed “He’s got great stuff and he pounds the zone with it, and that’s what makes him effective.  He’s just a great pitcher.”

“Like (Ken) Griffey told me,” added Arizona second baseman Orlando Hudson.  “He reminded him of a young Pedro (Martinez).”

(The quotes in this story are from mlb.com articles by Mark Sheldon & Steve Gilbert.   The photo is from ESPN)

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Bill James’ Game Score statistic gives some idea just how special Cueto’s day was.  Prior to today, sixty pitchers from the Dominican Republic made their major league debuts as starting pitchers.  The median Game Score for those games was 46, and here is the complete breakdown:

03.3% scored 80 or above

06.7% scored 70-79

15.0% scored 60-69

13.3% scored 50-59

21.7% scored 40-49

23.3% scored 30-39

10.0% scored 20-29

06.7% scored 19 or below

Put another way, nearly 97% of Dominican starting pitchers had Game Scores below 80 in their big league debut.  Johnny Cueto, with an 81, joins the elite group with just two of his countrymen.  Let’s work our way up through the ten-best major league debuts by Dominican hurlers to see who they are:

9th & 10th) tied at 68 – DANIEL CABRERA & RAMON MARTINEZ:  At 6’9″, Cabrera is the tallest Latino major leaguer in history.  On 5/13/2004, he was an emergency spot starter just up from double-A to pitch the first game of a doubleheader for the Orioles against the White Sox in Chicago.  He hurled six shutout innings, scattering two singles and three walks to get the win, and remained in the majors to stay (other than a brief demotion in 2006 when he control problems got unbearable).  A maddening enigma to Baltimore fans, Cabrera endured a miserable 2007 while leading the AL in walks for the second straight year, but he has an electric arm capable of big games like his one-hitter in 2006 against the Yankees.

Ramon Martinez, Pedro’s older brother, was a 20-year-old top prospect when he hurled 7 2/3 innings of four-hit ball at Dodger Stadium against the Giants on 8/13/88.  He left with a 1-0 lead, but got no-decision when the bullpen failed to hold the save.  The former Olympian threw a no-hitter, pitched in an All-Star Game and had a 20-win season in a 14-year career in which he went 135-88.  Arm problems prevented him from being even better.

8th) 69 – JUAN PENA:  He was just 21 when he whiffed eight Angels in a six-inning, three-hit performance to win his major league debut at Fenway Park on 5/8/99.  Six days later, he hurled seven shutout innings to beat the Blue Jays.  Then he never pitched in the big leagues again.  Pena missed all of 2000 after Tommy John surgery, and went just 4-15 in the minors in his comeback attempt before calling it a career.

7th) 71 – JOSE DELEON:  The 22-year-old Pirates phenom beat the Giants at Three Rivers Stadium on 7/23/83 with eight innings of four-hit work, striking out nine.  He flirted with several no-hitters early in his career, but he’s probably better known as the arguably the most talented pitcher ever to twice lead the NL with 19 losses.  DeLeon was 29-22 in a two-year stretch with the Cardinals, but just 86-119 overall in thirteen big league seasons.

5th & 6th) tied at 72 – GERALDO GUZMAN & RAMON ORTIZ:  Guzman was a 27-year-old that spent over half-a-decade working as a carpenter before returning to professional baseball in the Chinese league in 1999.  It was a great story when the Diamondbacks gave him a chance, and he pitched eight innings of four-hit ball to beat Houston at the Astrodome on 7/6/2000.  He got a second start eleven days later, and struck out nine Mariners over eight shutout innings to earn his second win.  He wasn’t as good the rest of the year, though, and was back out of the majors to stay after a cup of coffee the following year.

Now we know that Ortiz was 26 when he won his debut for the Angels on 8/19/99 in Chicago against the White Sox.  He had a okay career, going 44-33 from 2001-2003 and winning Game 3 of the 2002 World Series.  In 2006, he hit his first major league homer and came within three outs of hurling the first no-hitter for the Washington Nationals, but wound up leading the NL in losses.  Through 2007, his career record was 84-80.

4th) 77 – AMAURY TELEMACO–  The 22-year-old right-hander threw seven one-hit innings for the Cubs against the Astros at Wrigley Field on 5/16/96 to earn the victory.  He had good control, but troubles with the gopher ball inhibited his ability to hold down a regular rotation spot in a 9-year career with three teams.  Pitching mostly out of the bullpen, his career record was just 23-35

3rd)  81 – JOHNNY CUETO – No way to know what his future has in store, but you’ve got to like his chances if he can stay healthy.

2nd) 87 – PEDRO ASTACIO– As a 22-year-old Dodgers rookie, Astacio hurled four shutouts in his first ten starts, including one against the Phillies in his major league debut on 7/3/92.  He struck out ten that evening, throwing 144 pitches and limiting Philadelphia to just three singles.  He was never great, but he was good enough to go 17-10 for a bad Colorado team in 1999, and finished 129-124 for eight teams in a 15-year career.

1st) 96 – JUAN MARICHAL– Nobody who saw the 22-year-old make his major league debut on 7/19/60 would be surprised that he ended up with a plaque in Cooperstown.  For the Giants at Candlestick Park, the “Dominican Dandy” retired the first nineteen Phillies before somebody finally reached on an error.  He walked his only man before the inning was over, but didn’t surrender a hit until Clay Dalrymple’s single with two outs in the eighth.  Overall, he struck out 12 in a one-hit shutout in apperance number one.  Ten All-Star selections, six seasons with at least 20 victories and a 243-142 career record followed.

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The ten worst debuts by Game Score (from least worst to most awful) belong to:  Jose Roman, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Julian Tavarez, Lesli Brea, Ervin Santana, Juan Morillo, Rafael Quirico, Luis de los Santos & Arnie Munoz.

Those forgettable performances deserve to be forgotten, but I can’t help spotlighting Munoz’ horrow show since it’s the only debut Game Score to finish in the red (Arnie scored negative 7!). 

The little lefty had put up awe inspiring strikeout figures one winter in the Dominican League, and as a result, I was really anticipating his arrival on 6/19/2004.  Pitching for the White Sox in an interleague match-up in Montreal, Munoz was touched for a run in the first –and nine more in the second when the Expos Juan Rivera blasted a pair of home runs off him!  To make matters worse, Chicago skipper Ozzie Guillen left him in to pitch the third, and he gave up an eleventh earned run.  Ouch!  Ten hits and three walks in three innings, and only one strikeout. 

The White Sox moved him to the pen when he came back to the big leagues that September, then he didn’t resurface again until last year with the Nationals as a quintessential LOOGY (5 2/3 innings pitched in 13 appearances). 

by Malcolm Allen

malallen@live.com

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2 Responses to “Reds Pitcher Johnny Cueto – 3rd Best Major League Debut by a Dominican Starter”

  1. Thanks for the analysis. I was at the game and it was very impressive. I watched him at Dayton and didn’t want to miss his debut. Don’t let the attendance line fool you, there were only 5,000 people or less at this game according to an usher I spoke with. What makes the debut even more impressive is the constant rain that fell all game, the wind was bitter as well.

  2. Thanks for the post. Now I am excited about Cueto’s future!
    Credit to Dusty Baker for not pushing him to 144 pitches, like Lasorda did with Astacio.


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