In a cookie-cutter world of conformity and convention, where tastes and styles are packaged and marketed and where lowest-common is the prevailing denominator, where you either run with the pack or get eaten by it, you’ve got to love the stylist, the individual, the maverick who stands out.
Take a look at major-league pitchers over the past 20 years. Pretty much all of them wind up for the delivery to the plate the same way. They toe the rubber, stand straight and look in for the sign. They hold the ball into the glove about chin high. They rock backward a half-step, turn sideways and groove their foot inside the slab. The leg comes up in synchronicity with the spread of the arms. They turn to the plate, the elbow even with the shoulders, and shove off.
Unfortunately for the stylists out there, these are the mechanics that have been tested – and perfected.
In the early 21st century, the experts would beat the leg kick out of Juan Marichal before he got out of Class A.
Every once in awhile, individuality creeps back into the pitching game.
Now we have Johnny Cueto, who takes his unique delivery to the mound at AT&T Park on Thursday for the Giants, who have lost nine of 11 games since the All-Star break.
If not for Madison Bumgarner, he’d be the Giants’ Johnny Ace. Entering Wednesday’s games, the No. 2 in the Giants’ rotation was tied for No. 1 in wins in the National League with 13. He was fifth in ERA at 2.53 and second in innings pitched at 142 1/3 , just a click behind Bumgarner’s 142 2/3 . He was first in complete games with four, second in shutouts with two, and – unquestionably – way ahead of everybody as the most effective dreadlocked pitcher on the planet.
But it’s Cueto’s delivery that has gained renown as the most interesting and controversial in the major leagues.
The most noticeable aspect of Cueto’s windup is the turn of the back to the hitter, a twist made famous by Luis Tiant in the 1960s, after the late Dean Chance of the Los Angeles Angels used it in 1964 to win a Cy Young Award. Back in Chance’s day, they only gave out one Cy, for both leagues, and it mostly went to Sandy Koufax.
Putting his own twist on the Tiant turn, Cueto has added his distinctive shimmy. In mid-windup, he looks as if he’s suspended in his own animation. He shakes his shoulders up and down, right and left, or left to right, in mid-delivery. It’s a rhythmic delight for baseball observers, but not so entertaining for the men standing in the batter’s box. They have their own institutional protocols to follow, and analyzing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand is one of them. Their problem with Cueto is they can’t get a read on what the heck he’s doing.
Once in awhile, you’ll see them giving up in mid-pitch, while Cueto grooves a fastball for a strike. Timing is everything for batters, and when they don’t have it, they have nothing, and that’s what they’re left with so often when confronted by the shimmy.
Sometimes, Cueto throws them off with his version of the Cupid Shuffle. It’s a slip step he uses for his quick pitch. It’s a great counter to the Tiant Twist, which sometimes came off more like a slow waltz.
Put it all together and you’ve got a guy out there doing a dance batters can’t follow. That’s why they’re hitting just .228 against him.
Some baseball people think Cueto’s shimmy might constitute a balk. One of them, umpire Bill Welke, called one on Cueto’s shimmy in June, costing the Giants a run in a game they lost to the Dodgers by that much. Nobody’s called one on him since.
There’s no debate the shoulder shimmy is continuous movement, without interruption. As for “alteration,” the vague wording is subject to interpretation. Does it mean one shoulder shimmy compared to another? Must one delivery be identical to the one before it – without alteration? Must all deliveries be identical? Where do you draw the line?
Umpires have granted Cueto his artistic license. Until he is censored – hopefully, never – complaining batters and managers should do what the great ones do and figure him out.
Nobody says a batter can’t shimmy at the plate, and a lot of them do with leg kicks and fanny waggles. Why shouldn’t Cueto bobble his shoulders?
Cueto took a couple moments Tuesday to paint a portrait of the man behind the shimmy.
“I guess what I can say about Johnny Cueto is that he is a humble man,” Cueto said through a Spanish interpretation by Giants Spanish-language broadcaster Erwin Higueros. “He is a healthy man, and he tries to do for others, to help other people.”
He is humble, he is healthy and he is a stylist. May his shimmy live forever.