If there’s an extra bounce to Dave Righetti’s step in Scottsdale, it’s not hard to ascertain why. After watching his starters — other than Madison Bumgarner — struggle to get through six innings consistently, and taxing the bullpen as a result, the Giants threw their pitching coach a bone. Actually, they threw him two big ones in Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto.
“Outside of Zito, we’ve been pretty quiet when it comes to big-name free agents with starting pitching,” Righetti said. “So I’m looking forward to it.”
The Giants came very close to signing Zack Greinke. When he signed with the D-Backs, the Giants quickly added Samardzija. Weeks later, they made an even bigger splurge on Cueto. Righetti has watched plenty of video of both Cueto and Samardzija, but that process started before they signed with the Giants.
“I had a feeling because of the way the season ended, we were going to be out on the free agent market, looking for some help,” said Righetti. “Towards the end of the season, I started watching what (impending free agent starters) were doing. I didn’t know we were going to get ‘em, but I knew they were going to be the top guys.”
The guys the Giants ended up getting are both seen as “buy low” players, even though they signed for a combined total of well over $200 million (as long as Cueto doesn’t opt out of his contract after two years). Samardzija allowed the most hits, earned runs and home runs in the American League. After pitching brilliantly for the Reds, Cueto’s ERA jumped by more than two runs after joining the Royals.
Samardzija was surrounded by one of the worst defensive teams in the majors in 2015, but in many ways he was an absolute mess in Chicago. He not only threw too many cutters, he also believes he was tipping his pitches. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper told reporters that he “failed” with Samardzija.
Cueto finished on an up note with a complete game win over the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series, but he allowed five or more earned runs in five of his 17 starts (including the postseason).
Righetti doesn’t seem worried about either pitcher, in part because they’re coming back home … in a sense. “They’re National League guys,” he said.
“(Samardzija and Cueto) got history (in the NL), swinging the bat, being athletic, bunting, being part of that game. Once you do it, I think that’s what people feel you are. And Jeff being such a great athlete. You know he wants to be out there doing something besides sitting there, not being able to help. He can hit. He’s a good athlete and good bunter and competitor,” said Righetti.
“There was a couple years there where he literally came down to one pitch every game where if he made those pitches, he had a shot at getting a win. Those teams weren’t quite what his talent was at that time, but once you bounce around … It’s funny, the American League thing — it’d be fun to talk to him (about it). I think it’s great to go through it. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me feeling like he fits because you look at him as an athlete who belongs on the field.”
Johnny Cueto: National League guy
“Cueto’s a great bunter. I don’t know if people know that. He’s a better athlete than people think of him. He’s a good fielder,” Righetti said.
“I can see when he went over to the American League, when you don’t know hitters, you get to that pitch, instead of instinctively you go ‘right, boom, I know exactly what to throw,’ he had to step back and think (and was) probably a little bit hesitant. Just a little bit. Only because he hadn’t seen that reaction from a hitter yet. And when you do see that, and you build up that library in your head, six years in his head, you go to a new league and you’ve got to trust somebody else. You’re just a little bit off. And then he got on at the right time. Once he won his game in the World Series, I think everybody went, ‘Oh OK, we got this.’ And he did that for them and we’re hoping he’ll do that for us.”
As Righetti explained why he didn’t put much stock in Cueto’s struggles with the Royals, he recalled a former Giants starter.
“You know what? He reminds me of Livo. Livan Hernandez was one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever had. Johnny kind of reminds me of that. Same turn, likes to mess with the timing of hitters, things like that. You can’t really do that unless you believe it. I’ve seen guys try to do it and they don’t know how to do it, because it’s not in their DNA. When you’ve got a guy like that who can change speeds and use his body to do different things, you’ve got to let those guys be creative. That’s what they’re all about.”
What’s Cueto’s pitching repertoire?
“Full. He’s got a real one. Changes speeds and angles on really all of his pitches,” Righetti said.
“Still uses his fastball more than 50%. When guys start to get close to 2,000 innings — him and Cain, Timmy Lincecum, these guys — when you get in that area, you aren’t raring back. I saw Johnny, when he first came up, him and (Edinson) Volquez, they were throwing 95 every time they went out there. Now they’re both probably in the 92 range, but that’s plenty. I’ll take it (laughs). But he knows he doesn’t have to blow it (past hitters) all the time. And he’s changing speeds, he’s using a cutter. He can spin the ball. His repertoire is as good as it gets and that’s why he was a highly coveted guy, a lot of teams want that.
“And he’s a good guy in the clubhouse, players like being around him. That’s a lot when you’re trying to come to a new team. For him to want to come out here and want to pitch for us in the Bay Area, I thought it was a great feather, not only in our cap, but his. I’m looking forward to seeing how interacts with everybody, how he gets along. I know it’s going to happen. Cain, Bum, Peavy, all these guys, he’ll be comfortable and he’ll have a great time.”