In four days, Johnny Cueto will stand atop a big-league mound and attempt to fix his late-season free fall, so on Monday afternoon he grabbed baseball and threw a light bullpen session. As his teammates took batting practice at Progressive Field, Cueto threw under the eyes of pitching coach Dave Eiland, bullpen coach Doug Henry and the Kansas City training staff.
Inside the Royals dugout, general manager Dayton Moore huddled with manager Ned Yost. Moore had planned this trip in advance, but his arrival coincided with Cueto’s continuing crisis. A day after Cueto allowed eight runs to Baltimore, inflating his ERA to 9.57 in his last five starts, Moore diagnosed a pitcher who has placed undue stress upon himself and allowed his performance to crumble as a result.
"When you’re trying to do too much, when you’re trying to force things, when you’re under stress, your body sometimes won’t do what you want it to do," Moore said before Monday’s game against Cleveland. "It always go back to the same thing. It goes back to an innocent approach to the game. Having fun. Just going out and focusing one pitch at a time. It’s a cliché, but it’s true."
Cueto (2-7, 5.43 ERA) will make his next start on Friday against the Tigers at Comerica Park. By then, the Royals hope he can reclaim the form that persuaded the team to pursue him earlier this summer.
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In interviews, Cueto has downplayed the suggestion that he is, in the baseball parlance, trying to do too much. But that is the belief espoused by Yost, Eiland and now Moore, as they investigate how to aid a player they have called their own for less than two months.
Kansas City expected Cueto, acquired for three pitching prospects in late July, to solidify and headline their rotation. Instead he represents the group’s caboose. He gave up four homers on Sunday. Across these five starts, Cueto has allowed opposing hitters to bat .390 with a 1.086 on-base plus slugging percentage.
The Royals believe the trouble connects Cueto’s mindset with his mechanics. Eiland indicated Cueto has begun to over-rotate his body on pitches, attempting to add extra movement to them, which serves as counter-productive in terms of command.
Yost also noted Cueto’s passivity with his fastball against Baltimore. Three of the home runs stemmed from offspeed pitches.
"There’s nothing we can really do other than just support him, and expect good things to happen," Moore said. "That’s really all you can do. He’s going to go out there four days from now, take the ball in Detroit, and go out there and pitch. Go out there and attack, attack the strike zone."
Cueto insists he feels healthy. He dealt with elbow stiffness earlier in the season for the Reds, but he continues to tell Royals officials he does not feel any discomfort in his arm. Yost mentioned Cueto has passed all of the diagnostic tests given by trainer Nick Kenney.
The team’s lack of experience with Cueto does make the situation more challenging, Moore admitted. Cueto can become a free agent after this season. There are incentives for him to rebound, both in the present and in the future.
"What we have been able to determine with Johnny is he’s an extremely hard worker," Moore said. "He cares a great deal. He’s proud to be here. And he wants to contribute to the success of this team. That’s what we know about him. Because of his character traits, that are deep within him, you’re going to trust that he’s going to get through this."