Sunday night, Royals pitcher Johnny Cueto imploded on ESPN and exploded on Twitter: some Royals fans were not happy with his performance and took to social media to say so. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that Johnny should take a long walk off a short pier.
But sports fans are much better at getting rid of people then replacing them; fans can fire, demote or trade people because they don’t have to deal with the repercussions of firing, demoting or trading people.
And let’s not forget that at one point or another some Royals fans wanted to fire, demote or trade the following persons: Dayton Moore, Ned Yost, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Wade Davis, Greg Holland and just about anyone else who ever suffered a slump — and that probably includes Sluggerrr the mascot.
Fans tend to give up on players because they have no idea how to fix one. But this isn’t fantasy baseball and the answer is not always getting new players; sometimes you have to go with the players you have — you just need those players to perform better.
How to fix Johnny Cueto
Let me start by saying I have no idea how to fix Johnny Cueto and it’s unlikely that anyone who isn’t a major-league pitching coach does either.
On Sept. 3, Edinson Volquez pitched three innings and gave up six earned runs. One start later — on Sept. 8 — Edinson threw seven innings and gave up two earned runs.
Pitching coach Dave Eiland had Volquez take a smaller step with his left foot when he started his pitching motion and that got him back on track: his motion had less lateral movement and that kept Volquez going more toward home plate.
On Sept. 4, Kris Medlen threw 5 2/3 innings while giving up seven earned runs. One start later — on Sept. 9 — Kris threw six innings while giving up two earned runs.
Eiland asked Medlen to stay “tall” and that allowed him to pitch on a downward plane and gave better depth to his curveball and changeup.
I’ve watched a lot of baseball and know a little bit — not a lot — about pitching mechanics, but there’s no way in the world I would have spotted the flaws Eiland saw in Volquez and Medlen’s pitching motions. That’s probably why Eiland is getting paid to be a big-league pitching coach and I’m getting paid to do an inadequate job of describing what he does.
As long as Cueto isn’t hurt — and he says he’s healthy — it’s a question of mechanics, pitch selection and execution. At some point confidence also becomes an issue: pitchers need to believe they’re better than the guy at the plate, just like hitters need to believe they’re better than the guy on the mound.
Cueto has three or four more starts to figure things out before the playoffs and that’s what the Royals need him to do.
Sooner or later everybody scuffles
Every once in a while — actually twice in six years — some misguided young baseball reporter will ask for my advice. It provides me a wonderful opportunity to screw up another career besides my own. My advice usually falls into three categories:
1.) Watch the game — and I mean really watch the game.
2.) Learn Spanish.
3.) Play the game if possible.
Let’s talk about point No. 3: I tell people (OK, the two people that asked for advice) that if they play the sport they cover they’ll ask better questions and have a greater understanding of the answers they’re given. Playing the sport at any level — softball, beer league, beer-and-a-shot-in-the-parking lot league — helps you understand what you’re seeing.
If you’ve stood underneath a pop fly while staring into the sun, you have a greater understanding of how difficult that play is and more appreciation for the big-league ballplayers who make it look so easy.
If you’ve had a rocket hit at your feet and then had that rocket take a bad hop, you have a better idea of what a big-league infielder is dealing with.
And if you’ve had some sort of slump — and in this area I’m overqualified — you have a better understanding of what Cueto is going through.
Sunday night, ESPN announcer John Kruk — a pretty decent ballplayer in his day — talked about standing at the plate and thinking he didn’t know how to hit anymore. He’d gotten so out of whack that something that came so naturally to him at one point now seemed completely foreign.
Unfortunately, I know exactly what Kruk was talking about.
A couple seasons ago, when Mike Moustakas was scuffling and taking hundreds of swings to try to get back on track, he walked by me in the Royals clubhouse carrying a bat. He looked at me and said: “Wish me luck, Lee, I’m going hunting.”
Once again I knew exactly what Moose was talking about; he was going hunting for his swing. He’d lost it somewhere along the way and now he was trying to find it again.
And that’s the good news about Cueto:
Ballplayers will tell you they can get back on track with one swing. They take hack after hack and then take the right one and think: “There it is!” That one swing will get them back on track.
I’ve never pitched, but pitchers I’ve talked to say something similar; they’ll deliver a pitch and suddenly feel it again — they’ve stumbled back into the right pitching motion and after that, it’s easier to lock back in on that motion.
Sunday night, Cueto threw some good pitches and too many bad ones. But this is a guy who has put up a lifetime ERA of 3.30; he knows how to pitch. The Royals just need him to remember how he did it before the playoffs start. And if the playoffs started tomorrow, that would be one thing; but the Royals and Cueto have a few weeks left to figure things out.
Giving up on Cueto at this point is not the answer.