On his first day as a Kansas City Royal, Johnny Cueto slipped into a blue hoodie and stepped into the 86-degree muck of Northeast Ohio. The climate did not trouble him; he had perfected this routine 250 miles south in Cincinnati. He walked down the right-field line, vaulted a railing and landed on the steps in the first row between Sections 128 and 129 at Progressive Field.
It was 3:13 p.m. Time to run.
Cueto jogged up the steps, as he does most days in between his starts, zigzagged into the next section, walked to the bottom and ran back toward the concourse ringing the stadium’s lower bowl. He became obsessive about the routine during his early years as a Red, when he transformed himself into an ace, the sort of pitcher the Royals would one day trade three quality prospects to acquire.
“He had some minor setbacks that cost him time,” former Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “We just talked about the need to run. The need to really, really work. And then, Johnny Cueto started working.”
The ritual carried him to an All-Star Game in 2014, a pair of top-four finishes in National League Cy Young Award voting and a potential nine-figure payday this winter as a free agent. In the months before he hits the market, he will anchor the rotation of the Royals. Cueto represents an asset Kansas City has not held since the Royals traded Zack Greinke — a legitimate No. 1 starter.
Cueto, a 29-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic, will make his first start as a Royal on Friday against Toronto at Rogers Centre. But the Royals did not acquire him for a stray game in July. They acquired him for the first game of the World Series, which the team intends to host at Kauffman Stadium.
James Shields cloaked himself in the armor of an ace, but underneath he was more vulnerable, a reality exposed last October. Cueto is the genuine article. Since 2011, his 2.51 ERA trails only Dodgers superstar Clayton Kershaw’s mark for the best among qualified starters. During these past two seasons, through Tuesday, he ranked first in batting average against at .192, third in innings and fourth in ERA at 2.38.
“He’s always been a smart guy,” said Edinson Volquez, who teamed with Cueto in Cincinnati and now once more. “I think the longer he’s been in the big leagues, he’s gotten better.”
Cueto reached this peak with a combination of off-field diligence, on-mound intelligence and in-game deception, say peers, rival evaluators and coaches. He accessorizes with flair, his auburn-tinted goatee facing second base as he turns his back to the plate in his windup, his brown dreadlocks whipping through the air with each delivery.
His Instagram account documents him wearing leopard-print cowboy hats, eating lobster and, on the day he joined the Royals in Cleveland, posing with a crown. He speaks with reporters through an interpreter, preferring to express himself in Spanish, but his impish sense of humor treads just below the surface.
“Don’t let him (fool) you,” Baker said. “He don’t need no interpreter.”
His creativity extends to the mound. Cueto does not rely upon one prevailing pitch. He mixes a 93-mph fastball with an 88-mph cutter, sliders and changeups in the mid-80s and a slower curveball. He masks these options with a blend of different deliveries and arm angles. One American League executive raved that with all that variety, “it’s like he’s got 15 different pitches.”
Cueto’s delivery invites comparisons to Luis Tiant. One executive likened Cueto’s competitiveness to that of another inductee, Pedro Martinez. Pitching coach Dave Eiland spotted flashes of former Royal David Cone, another man willing to experiment with the baseball.
“I thought he was one of the smartest pitchers in the game,” said Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum, who managed and coached against Cueto with the Brewers and Cubs.
What separates Cueto from his peers is his mind. He reads swings. He remembers sequences. When he allows runners on base, he does not crumble, a quality demonstrated by his 80.4 percent strand rate these past two seasons, the second-best in baseball for starters.
“You got a gamer,” Baker said. “You got a gamer in Johnny Cueto. I ain’t lying. He’s in my top four or five guys if I had to win a big game. Top three, really.”
His name echoed from the highest reaches of PNC Park as a pack of 40,487 Pittsburgh diehards slurred it like an expletive. The chant was rhythmic and unceasing, two syllables shouted over and over again on Oct. 1, 2013.
“KWAY-TOE,” the refrain went. “KWAY-TOE. KWAY-TOE.”
The postseason past of Cueto is brief but checkered. He threw five innings of one-run ball in the third game of the 2010 National League Division Series for Baker, but Cole Hamels spun a shutout for Philadelphia. A strained oblique ejected him from a game against the Giants in 2012 after only six pitches.
A year later, Cincinnati limped into the NL Wild Card Game. In desperation, Baker turned to Cueto. In his third start after a two-month layoff for a strained latissimusi dorsi muscle, Cueto dropped the ball — literally and figuratively. He surrendered four runs and left midway through the fourth. In the second inning, he accidentally lost his handle on the baseball as the crowd hounded him.
The moment looked bad. The details were more charitable to Cueto. Baker intended to start Mat Latos, but a bone chip rendered him unavailable, because “his arm was aching,” Baker said. Cueto told Baker he wanted the baseball. Despite the rust still coating his right arm, he desired the spotlight.
“He grew up in a town — where he grew up in that town — it’s much scarier than a bunch of people chanting his name,” said Bryce Dixon, Cueto’s agent. “He’s not going to be intimidated by anything like that.”
Each winter, Cueto returns to San Pedro de Macoris, a city of about 200,000 in southeastern Dominican Republic, hard by the Caribbean Sea. He splits his time between the city and a farm he owns about 20 minutes away. Cueto lived a childhood there marked by both happiness and hardship.
His father was present in his life, but mostly his mother raised Cueto, along with his four siblings. Money was scarce. He worked with his hands, picking fruits and vegetables for neighbors, to aid his mother and accumulate some spare cash. When he tried out for Reds scout Johnny Almaraz in 2004, Cueto came to the park wearing his only glove and his only pair of cleats. He had just turned 18.
The Reds signed Cueto for about $35,000. He was not considered an elite prospect. Even in his current form, he is far from a physical marvel. He is listed at 5 feet 11, but may be shorter. The Washington Post captured a scene in 2014 where a Reds teammate asked Cueto if he was pregnant.
Yet his aptitude was apparent from the start. Cueto raced through the Cincinnati minor-league system in three seasons. He debuted as a big-leaguer in 2008. He has never left.
“From infancy through the minors, he’s had to fight for respect and fight for his position,” Dixon said. “And successfully so.”
On his first day as a Royal, Cueto finished pounding the concrete ringing Progressive Field. Sweat stained his skullcap when he returned to the clubhouse. In an alcove next to the dugout, he signed a baseball and grabbed a chair with Volquez, Alcides Escobar and Kendrys Morales, ready to join their daily card game.
Cueto aches for competition, his friends say. He does not like to lose at cards or at dominoes or in the game that has made him a millionaire.
“One thing I noticed with him over the years, when people got on base, he got really good,” Sveum said.
The numbers, in some ways, back up this anecdotal belief mentioned by many. When there are no men on base, opposing hitters bat .232 against Cueto. When there are runners in scoring position, though he is slightly more susceptible to walks and extra-base hits, Cueto holds opponents to a .224 average.
In high-stress situations, Cueto adapts. He exaggerates certain portions of his already funky delivery for the purposes of deception. Sometimes Cueto throws quick pitches. Other times he slows his windup, using that delay to upset a batter’s timing.
He can be blunt. He likes to establish his fastball early in games. He can also take chances. Scouts say Cueto has no fear of throwing a changeup to a right-handed hitter or a back-door curveball to a left-handed hitter in a full count.
“He has a total recall of how he has pitched batters in the past, and present,” Baker said. “And he’s got that sixth sense. They say he can throw the ball through a keyhole. That’s pitching.”
Added one executive, “He’s just got so much imagination. And he can execute the imagination. He’s got a lot of tricks in his bag. But he knows the purpose of every pitch he throws.”
On Monday afternoon, Eiland asked video coordinator Mark Topping for a copy of Cueto’s last start with Cincinnati on Saturday. Confused about his status as a Red that night, informed shortly before he took the mound at Coors Field that he might have been traded, Cueto responded with eight scoreless innings. His fastball touched 96 mph.
He also assuaged worries about his health. Cueto had missed nearly two weeks because of stiffness in his elbow after giving up three runs in seven innings to the Royals on May 19. After a subsequent MRI, the Cincinnati medical staff informed Cueto his arm looked as clean as it did when he signed his five-year, $36.2 million extension with the team before 2011.
So Eiland could focus on Cueto’s ability. He marveled at the repetitiveness of the delivery. Underneath the whirring limbs and staggering tempos, Eiland spotted a train that always leaves its station on time.
“One thing he does do, he separates his hands out of his glove in the same spot, on time, every single time,” Eiland said. “That allows him to command all those different variations.” He added, “That tells me he has tremendous body awareness.”
In his first years with the Reds, Cueto could not always access his imagination. His arm would not let him. He missed time because of shoulder inflammation in 2009 and again in 2011. At some point, Baker and the Cincinnati staff relayed a message: “If you want to be a great pitcher, you want to get paid what you’re worth, you’ve got to stay on the hill,” Baker said.
Cueto listened. He became “crazy” about his routine, Dixon explained, making the steps the centerpiece of his cardio. The strained lat muscle sidelined him in 2013, but Cueto responded by leading the National League with 243 1/3 innings last season. Even after the elbow scare of 2015, he still has thrown 130 2/3 frames, more than any of his new teammates.
On Thursday afternoon, the day before his first start as a Royal, Cueto rested. His skullcap dangled from a hanger in his locker at Rogers Centre. Cueto lounged in a chair next to Volquez, laughing as Escobar called out to them across the room.
His first start with the Royals loomed a little more than 24 hours away. The start the Royals acquired him for — that first World Series night at The K — still stood two months away.
In between, there were dozens upon dozens of stadium steps to run. Johnny Cueto will climb them.