Johnny Cueto’s tenure with the San Francisco Giants had begun in earnest just a few hours prior with his 2016 debut, a start against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park in which the right-handed pitcher guided his team to a 2-1 win.

As is customary in every winning clubhouse around baseball, music was blaring as a caucus of media members surrounded Cueto’s locker. The awaiting contingent eyeballed Cueto near the visiting team’s cafeteria. A reciprocal gesture acknowledged he was coming.

Cueto walked into the center of the circling reporters and then bobbed his head toward a Giants staffer, indicating he would like the music turned off, knowing it could pose problems for the upcoming Q&A session.

It might seem like a benign request—or one players might think is self-promoting if they didn’t otherwise know Cueto. But his willingness to kill the music, typically reserved for a more senior member of the organization, speaks to his comfort in the San Francisco clubhouse.

His play that night validated what the Giants thought when they signed him this offseason: Cueto is capable of carrying the team on any given night.

“I felt comfortable with my teammates from day one since I signed the new contract,” Cueto said through a translator.

“It’s normal in me. I felt very comfortable from day one. I’m going to be here for a very long time based on the contract that I signed. So that’s just my personality.”

Cueto has two wins in as many starts for the Giants—both of which went seven innings. He allowed six hits and just one earned run in his season debut, but he needed the Giants to come through offensively after allowing the Los Angeles Dodgers five runs in the first inning of his second start on April 10. And they did.

Of course, two games, including a particularly bad start to his second, won’t earn Cueto exalted status in the Giants clubhouse. And if the team were living in baseball’s version of Siberia, there would still be questions about Cueto’s capability as a starter.

But this organization knew Cueto and ace Madison Bumgarner could form one of baseball’s best starting pitching tandems long before he donned an orange and black jersey.

From 2011 to 2014 with the Cincinnati Reds, Cueto had a cumulative ERA of 2.48. In the three seasons he has pitched at least 200 innings, the 30-year-old has had a WAR of at least 4.1, according to FanGraphs.

Belief in Cueto is grounded in his history of success, his 4.35 ERA in a 13-start stint with the Kansas City Royals last year notwithstanding (though it should be noted his WAR last season was 4.1).

Giants manager Bruce Bochy is so convinced of his capabilities that, early in Cueto’s first start, he made a move specifically because he knew who was on the mound.

With the score tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the third inning, one out and the Brewers‘ Jonathan Villar on third, Bochy brought his infield in. As a result, when right fielder Domingo Santana grounded to San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford, the Giants were able to throw Villar out at home. That saved what would have been the go-ahead run.

Typically, such a move wouldn’t be made so early in the game, especially with a Giants offense capable of scoring in bunches. The Giants currently lead all of MLB with 50 runs scored.

Limiting an opponent from generating big innings is typically the strategy for teams heavy on offense. 

The conventional theory: Early in the game, conceding a run to get an out—by playing the infield at normal depth—likely doesn’t matter. Also, bringing in the infield risks a soft single and the potential start of a big inning.

Bochy thought differently with Cueto on the mound.

“I thought it would be a tight ballgame,” Bochy said. “But, worst case, I have confidence in Johnny to get out of it.

“He just keeps a calmness about him in traffic, and he showed it tonight. He doesn’t panic.”

The team’s comfort with Cueto may stem from his even-keeled personality. But the pitcher’s confidence in his team lies in his willingness to work quickly.

In both of his starts, Cueto, as he has with his other MLB teams, worked very quickly in between pitches. That’s an indication that he is comfortable with Giants catcher Buster Posey, rarely disagreeing with a sign. Otherwise, we would see drawn-out pitching sequences.

His first start lasted only two hours, 29 minutes. Despite the high run total, his second start lasted 3:07.

It’s like two actors with great chemistry. They don’t need many takes to get a scene right. While it is a small sample size, if there were chemistry issues between Cueto and Posey, we would see them early.

“I just enjoy the pace that he works at, really quickly, and I think anybody on defense appreciates that, whether you’re catching or in the field,” Posey said.

“From the start of spring training, he kind of came in with a plan. He didn’t feel like he needed to come in and impress anybody.”

But that’s what he has done, nonetheless.

The four other starters—Bumgarner, fellow offseason signee Jeff Samardzija, Jake Peavy and Matt Cain—pitch every fifth day regardless of who is in the rotation.

Obviously, they never play with one another.

But Cueto’s experience gives the other pitchers a sounding board—someone who has knowledge on how to pitch to different lineups in different situations.

Remember, this is a guy, despite an overall disappointing tenure with the Royals, who pitched a complete-game two-hitter in Game 2 of the World Series last year.

“It helps everyone out, and aside from just having guys that have been around and can pitch and have been very successful, just being able to talk to each other in the clubhouse,” Bumgarner said. “When you got guys with a lot of experience and a lot of success, chances are they’ve faced adversity and had problems here and there and been successful.”

There aren’t many guarantees in baseball. And Cueto isn’t one of them. But already he has proved how great he can be for a team eyeing the World Series.

No question: A big season from Cueto could get it there.

San Francisco is hoping its right-hander has to turn down that music many more times.


All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise specified.

Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Talk baseball with Seth by following him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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