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2016: The best season of Johnny Cueto’s career

The year the Giants bought an ace who scared the crap out of the Cubs.

2016 MLB All-Star Game

I considered making Conor Gillaspie the best thing to happen to the Giants in 2016, but if we really look at his contributions, as helpful as that 100 OPS+ was, it all came down to playoff heroics. That’s not a bad thing, but because the Giants’ season didn’t end with a World Series, it’s hard to look at those heroics as the best thing.

Madison Bumgarner had, by virtue of a 146 ERA+ and 226.2 IP, the best and longest regular season of his career. He even pitched another darling Wild Card game. But then the Cubs beat him up pretty good in the NLDS and the Giants didn’t get past them either, so, again, tough to say his year was the best thing to happen to the Giants.

But you know who was new to the team, had a career year, and put the fear of The Curse into the Cubs?

Our beloved Johnny Cueto.

The Giants entered the 2015 offseason with a clear objective: upgrade the absolutely embarrassing pitching. In 2015, the lineup had been a coat of paint over a moldy wood panel, but by season’s end, nobody noticed the paint. The Giants needed arms to get back in the playoff race.

After being rebuffed by Jon Lester the previous offseason and, apparently, having no backup options then, the Giants attacked the next free agent market with vigor. They still, mostly, came up empty, losing out on Zack Greinke and David Price, before landing Jeff Samardzija on a 5-year deal and then Cueto on a 6-year deal with a seventh year option.

All he did was post the lowest FIP (2.95) and walks per 9 innings (1.8) of his career in 219.2 innings, securing his best record (18-5) and Cy Young Vote standing (6th) since 2014 (20-9, 2nd). That’s probably not just because of the park, but a combination of the park, the coaching, and the second-best defense in baseball (+92.8 Defensive Runs Above Average). As much as the Giants made Cueto better than he’d ever been, he made the rotation stronger than it had been in years.

The 2016 Giants led baseball in complete games (10) with Cueto recording five of them. As a team, the Giants had just five complete games from 2017-2019.

But it was more than just the numbers, it was the attitude. The shimmy shake of those shoulders. The aloof demeanor. That mischievous grin. That changeup.

And then we know the rest. He scared the Cubs in game one until Javier Baez blasted a 3-2 pitch into the left field basket. The Giants nearly forced the series back to Chicago and another Cueto start.

Johnny Cueto was etched all over my frontal lobe,” Maddon said of the San Francisco Giants pitcher who was itching for another shot at the Cubs in a win-or-go-home game back at Wrigley Field. “And I didn’t like it.”

It’s one of the great what ifs of this decade. The Giants were spoiled rotten, of course, but could they have extended Chicago’s curse and their own Even Year Bullshit with slightly better bullpen management or a slightly better pitch in Game One? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter — again, because of three titles in five years — but Johnny Cueto was the best thing to happen to the Giants in 2016 because he brought a new energy to the dynasty and a performance that lived comfortably among the greats.