The outcome of Tuesday night's win-or-go-home Wild Card clash between the Reds and Pirates may well come down to whether Johnny Cueto can silence NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen's bat. Historically, that has been a tough task: McCutchen has taken Cueto deep three times in 39 at-bats, and his .513 slugging percentage is third-highest among all hitters with at least 30 ABs against Cincinnati's ace (Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano are first and second, respectively). Is it time for Cueto to tweak his approach against McCutchen?
Cueto has typically gone mano-a-mano against 'Cutch, pumping the strike zone with fastballs and challenging the quickest wrists this side of Gary Sheffield to turn on a pitch. Cueto has thrown a fastball about 65 percent of the time versus McCutchen during his career, way above his overall 58 percent average from 2008-13. Cueto is less fastball-centric now than he was earlier in his MLB tenure (he has thrown 53 percent fastballs in 2012-13), but he's still going after McCutchen, firing fastballs slightly more than 65 percent of the time over the past two years.
The majority of those fastballs are over the plate, too -- Cueto has thrown McCutchen an in-zone heater 51 percent of the time during his career, above his overall 47 percent average. Age hasn't changed Cueto much here either, as he's still throwing 'Cutch more in-zone fastballs than he does to other hitters.
To this point, Cueto's fastball has been no match for McCutchen's bat speed. The Pirates' franchise player has belted all three of his homers against Cueto on fastballs, slugging .621 against the pitch. McCutchen is one of the game's elite fastball hitters, slugging .580 this season and .555 during his MLB career. That's why so few pitchers feed him fastballs. He has seen a heater just 42 percent of the time this season, sixth-lowest among qualified hitters.
Lowest percentage of fastballs seen, 2013
Cueto has evolved as a pitcher over the course of his six seasons in the majors, relying more upon his secondary stuff, generating ground balls and keeping the ball in the park. Against McCutchen, though, he reverts back into the 22-year-old who preferred to blow hitters away -- and pay the price when he couldn't. Perhaps it's time to slow 'Cutch down with more breaking and off-speed stuff.