In 2015 Johnny Cueto pitched 130.2 innings for the Cincinnati Reds and put up an ERA of 2.62.
After moving to the Kansas City Royals, Cueto has pitched 81.1 innings with an ERA of 4.76.
So what happened?
A couple things: First, Cueto moved to a league with a designated hitter.
So Johnny is now facing good hitters instead of easy outs, and in the National League that easy out can turn into two. With a runner in scoring position, eight-hole hitters are inclined to expand the zone and chase pitches.
They know a pitcher is coming to the plate next, so a guy who is already hitting at the bottom of the lineup now has to chase borderline pitches as well.
Second, Johnny Cueto got a new catcher.
Shaking Sal off
Salvador Perez is a physically gifted catcher, but does not have the reputation of being a gifted game caller.
Most fans don’t know much about game calling, so we tend to ignore it. If a catcher hits and throws runners out, we think he’s a good catcher.
When Cueto first got to Kansas City you could see him struggle to get on the same page with Perez. Younger pitchers might go along with what Sal calls, but veteran pitchers have a better idea of what they want to do and Cueto was shaking Perez’s signs off on a regular basis.
Most pitchers would prefer not to shake; they’d rather concentrate of pitch execution and leave pitch calling to the catcher. Pitchers will tell story after story of being in the windup, thinking this might not be the right pitch and then getting that pitch blasted.
Losing your concentration on the pitcher’s mound can be disastrous.
If you see Cueto shaking off Perez tonight — or just continuing to stare in, which is another way of asking for a different pitch — things are not going well.
If you see Cueto brush his uniform with his glove — and I’ve never noticed him do this, but I wanted to stick it in because a kinda cool thing to know — he’s adding and subtracting. One point of the uniform will be “add” and another will be “subtract.” So a fastball (one finger from the catcher) followed by the sign for add from the pitcher becomes a curveball (two fingers). Brush two times and that fastball becomes a slider.
(OK, I was just showing off in that last bit, but feel free to do the same thing and impress your friends with that information during the game tonight.)
Shake for show
If you’re going to pay attention to Johnny shaking Sal’s calls off, you need to know about “Shake for show.”
Let’s say Johnny is in a 2-0 count; the percentage pitch is a fastball so the hitter will be looking for it.
If a catcher still wants to throw the fastball, he’ll drop one finger, but might shake his head while doing it.
He’s asking the pitcher to pretend to shake him off. The hitter thinks he’s getting a 2-0 heater, sees the pitcher shake his head so then think the pitcher doesn’t want to throw that fastball, it’ll be something off-speed.
This works better on younger hitters. The veteran guys have seen it before and sometimes don’t buy it.
2-0, 2-1, 3-0 and 3-1 counts
There are always exceptions, but these are considered fastball counts and hitters — especially power hitters — won’t to “turn and burn” in these counts. In English that means they want to pull the ball and try to hit it out of the park.
One way to combat that is to throw the expected fastball, but throw it to the outer part of the plate. That way the turn-and-burn guy hooks the ball, but is more likely to hit a grounder. Salvador Perez has gotten pitchers in trouble when he tried to go inside in these counts, so watch where he sets up in fastball counts.
The warmup pitches
I probably should have started here, but that would’ve taken some planning on my part and if you think I plan this stuff out, you don’t know me.
Between innings a pitcher gets eight warmup pitches and one of the ways a catcher gets a pitcher locked in is to have him throw those warmup pitches down and away from his arm-side.
Cueto has had problems opening up and cutting off pitches, so if Sal sets up down and away, Johnny will have to extend his arm and motion to hit that spot — he’ll have to finish off the pitch. If Johnny does that on his fastball in warmups, all his other pitches will become better. He’ll finish off cutters, sliders, curves and changes and that will make those pitches stay down in the zone.
If Johnny is missing in on his arm side in warmups, don’t expect things to get a whole lot better once a hitter is at the plate.
Establishing those secondary pitches early
In Johnny’s last start against the Astros, Sal got Johnny in trouble when he called for a 3-2 curve with George Springer at the plate. It was Johnny’s first attempt at a curve and he missed.
Springer walked and then scored when Colby Rasmus hit a double.
I got this one from Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki, but it’s a good example of advanced game calling by a smart catcher. Early in the game Kurt will look for counts where bouncing a breaking pitch won’t matter. He’ll ask for a slider or curve and then tap the ground with his mitt. That signal is telling the pitcher he wants this ball bounced in the dirt.
Bouncing a curve allows the pitcher to get a feel for the pitch, so now he’s got a better idea of the release point required for throwing that curve for a strike. Then, when Kurt needs that curve for a strike — or as he calls it, a “money pitch” — the pitcher has a better chance of throwing a good one.
Cueto started that Springer plate appearance by throwing strike one, then strike two ... but Perez did not call for a curve in the 0-2 or 1-2 counts. He waited until Johnny had to throw it at 3-2 and Johnny did not throw it for a strike. Those 0-2 and 1-2 counts were a missed opportunity.
Blocking pitches in the dirt
When a hitter gets into a two-strike count you’re likely to see a pitcher throw a “chase” pitch.
That’s an off-speed pitch that starts in the zone, but then breaks down out of it. Hitters are trying to be aggressive with two strikes and swing at anything close and the pitcher and catcher hope the hitter will chase the off-speed pitch.
But if there are runners on — especially if there’s a runner on third — the pitcher has to trust the catcher to block a pitch in the dirt. Lately Salvador Perez has gotten into a bad habit when blocking. He goes down to keep the pitch from shooting through the “five-hole” (between his legs), but then bounces back up before the pitch arrives.
Sal has had more than one pitch squirt under his mitt and get to the backstop and if he doesn’t get that fixed it will make it harder for Johnny to throw chase pitches with runners on base.
First pitch of an at bat
Well, if I haven’t given you enough to watch in tonight’s game, here’s one more thing:
Pitchers are trying to get ahead in the count so you see a lot of first-pitch fastballs. Hitters are trying to prevent pitchers from getting ahead in the count so you see a lot of first-pitch swings.
The way for a pitcher to get around that is to throw a well-located first-pitch fastball — something that’s in a zone that’s tough to hit — or throw a first-pitch get me over breaking ball. Hitters want to hit fastballs because they’re straight, so if a pitcher can throw a curve or cutter or slider for a first-pitch strike, a lot of hitters will take it.
In Johnny Cueto’s last start against the Astros he threw eight first-pitch two seamers (a sinking fastball designed to get a grounder) 10 first-pitch four-seamers (a straight fastball used to hit a particular locations) six first-pitch cutters and tw0 first-pitch sliders.
Now if you did the math and came up with 26 first-pitches, good for you: the 27th first-pitch was a changeup and that’s not recommended, especially in a hitter’s first at bat — what are you changing up from?
Cueto threw it to Colby Rasmus and Rasmus hit an RBI double. The Royals cannot affird that can of mistake again tonight.
Two ways to watch the game
So there it is: if you pay attention to first pitches, the scoreboard radar gun, Salvador Perez’ positioning, Cueto’s warm-up pitches and what Johnny throws to start an at bat you’ll have a greater understanding of tonight’s game.
Or, you could crack a cold beer and just enjoy the damn thing.