USA TODAY US Edition
Posey’s spring chore: Connecting with Cueto
Giants catcher looking to establish rapport with free agent pitching prize
Buster Posey’s experience with horses ended around the time he was 14, when a fall convinced his dad that the talented teenager was better off pursuing other activities.
Given Posey’s dedication to his craft, though, it would not be surprising if he started to get reacquainted with equestrian matters.
The San Francisco Giants’ biggest offseason acquisition, righthander Johnny Cueto, is an avid rider who owns horses back home in the Dominican Republic, and he’s joining a rotation headed by noted horseman and rancher Madison Bumgarner.
Posey and Bumgarner, both born and raised in small Southern towns, have shared a bond that carries over to their close working relationship on the field. The Giants catcher and Cueto don’t have much of a background in common and they grew up speaking different languages, so be it through horses, card games or whatever, Posey wants to make sure they develop a rapport.
“As much as anything, just have them become comfortable with me, in the clubhouse as well,” Posey said of what he aims to do when pitchers first join the team. “Let them see I want to help them any way I can to be successful, because if they’re suc- cessful, there’s a good chance we’re going to win ballgames.”
The Giants have a lot riding on Posey extracting the best out of Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, their other big-ticket rotation addition. Cueto received a six-year deal that guarantees him $130 million, and he can opt out of the contract after 2017. Samardzija, coming off a subpar season with the Chicago White Sox, signed a five-year, $90 million deal.
The rapport figures to come more naturally with Samardzija, the Giants’ other major pitching addition, who has a more standard style. Cueto speaks English well enough to communicate with teammates but is far more comfortable in Spanish — he talks to the media through an interpreter — and his assortment of gyrations, hesitations and quick pitches is hardly typical.
“That’s how I enjoy the game,” he said in Spanish, “being relaxed on the mound but respecting your job.”
It will be up to Posey not only to be ready for the quick pitches but also to figure out Cueto’s quirks and mannerisms so he can extract optimum results from a pitcher with the second-best ERA (2.51) in the National League since 2011 but who endured ups and downs after being dealt to the Kansas City Royals on July 26.
The task entails catching Cueto frequently during the spring, in games and bullpen sessions, and establishing clear lines of communication. That goes beyond getting through any language barrier they might encounter.
Cueto got along great with Cuban-born catcher Brayan Pena during their time together with the Cincinnati Reds — “He would pay for all our trips to Fogo de Chao,” Cueto said, smiling — but had a hard time getting used to Salvador Perez, the Royals’ All-Star catcher from Venezuela.
That might have been a factor in Cueto’s shaky performances with the Royals, for whom he went 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA in 13 regular-season starts. He was inconsistent in the postseason, getting shelled by the Toronto Blue Jays but also delivering two huge starts, including a two-hit complete game in Kansas City’s 7-1 win vs. the New York Mets in Game 2 of the World Series.
“It was a matter of talking to him,” Cueto said of Perez, the World Series MVP. “I like the mitt to be way down and the catcher to be down in the dirt. That’s how Brayan Pena worked with me. Thankfully, (Perez) adjusted to me, and I enjoyed having him as my catcher.”
He’s likely to find a big ally in Posey, whose hitting exploits — he’s a .310 career hitter with an MVP and a batting crown to his name — sometimes overshadow his work behind the plate.
Posey was a Gold Glove finalist last season, when he finished first among qualifying catchers in the National League in fewest wild pitches allowed and tied for the second-fewest passed balls. He also ranked fourth in the major leagues in pitch framing and seventh in percentage of basestealers thrown out.
Beyond the numbers, which don’t always accurately measure a catcher’s value, Posey is known for his thorough preparation and keen understanding of a pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses and how those might vary in a particular game.
“For a pitcher to be able to go out and not have to worry about how the game is going to be called, how his pitches are going to be received, those are confidence-boosters,” Giants general manager Bobby Evans said. “He can let his stuff take over and not necessarily worry about the pitch-to-pitch preparation.”
The Giants are counting on Cueto and Samardzija to eat up innings, lessen the bullpen’s load and help the starters as a group substantially improve on last year’s 3.95 ERA, which ranked seventh in the league.
Posey has fared well in his atbats against Cueto — 4-for-10, all singles — but recognizes the challenge he presents and is especially impressed with the way Cueto maintains his balance while altering his windup in an attempt to throw off hitters’ timing.
“He commands four pitches really well,” Posey said. “You’ve got the timing issues, and on top of that he’s got great stuff. That gets overlooked sometimes because he’s quirky, but the stuff is really good.”
And he’d much rather catch it than hit against it.