Johnny Cueto sat down on a black leather couch at Cleveland’s Progressive Field last Tuesday. He faced Royals manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland. Seated next to Cueto on the couch was assistant general manager Rene Francisco, invited by Yost to translate for Cueto and help solve the mystery of Cueto’s five-start fiasco.
Cueto assured the group he felt healthy. So Yost implored Cueto to speak freely and help explain the disappearance of the player the Royals acquired before the July 31 trade deadline. After weeks of quiet grumbling, Cueto admitted to the group he felt uncomfortable with the positioning of catcher Salvador Perez. Cueto suggested a series of technical adjustments for Perez behind the plate.
The meeting lasted only 15 minutes. But based on Cueto’s first outing since, a seven-inning, two-run rebound against the Tigers on Friday, the consequences for the Royals could loom large.
“We were all searching, too,” Yost said. “Everybody was wondering, ‘Is he hurt? Is he hurt?’ No, he’s not hurt.”
During this road trip, despite six losses in 10 games, the Royals maintained a two-game edge over Toronto for home-field advantage in the American League playoffs. The team trimmed its magic number to three. This week at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals are likely to clinch their first division title since 1985 and their first-ever AL Central title.
Even so, the most productive moment of the 10-game trip may have occurred during the meeting Yost called Tuesday. If Cueto can recapture the form he exhibited during the last two seasons, the Royals employ a legitimate No. 1 starter. But Cueto looked like the exact opposite in his five starts before Friday, when he posted a 9.57 ERA.
Part of his trouble, Cueto explained to the team, was he tries to throw exactly toward the catcher’s glove. Perez often set the target high in the zone, intending to lower his mitt with the pitch. But the optics challenged Cueto, which may have led to him spinning a series of cutters and change-ups at the waist of opposing hitters in recent weeks.
Cueto offered a series of suggestions for Perez. Cueto needed the mitt positioned lower in the zone. He wanted Perez to back up off the plate. And Cueto wanted Perez to set up later than normal. When there were no men on base on Friday, Perez often crouched on one knee, lowering his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame to meet Cueto’s preferences.
“In this case, he wants a low target,” catching coach Pedro Grifol said. “At times, that’s tough for Salvy because he’s a big guy. But (Cueto) wants it. He likes it. The catcher’s job is to learn all those different personalities and make the necessary adjustments to make that guy feel comfortable.”
At times, Cueto still missed with pitches up the zone against Detroit on Friday. Perhaps the adjustments operated only as a placebo effect. But the Royals noticed how Cueto bullied the Tigers with his fastball, and displayed more confidence. No longer did he mope on the mound, as Eiland noticed in his last few outings.
The revival begs the question: Why didn’t Cueto speak up sooner? The answer speaks to both his personality and the difficulty of transitioning to a new team in the middle of the season. Cueto opted to defer to Perez, rather than challenge a player he respected.
“He understood that Salvy’s a three-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glover,” Yost said. “He’s not going to come in and tell him what to do.”
Grifol added, “We’re just learning him. And if that’s one of the things that he needs and wants, then that’s what we’ve got to provide. When guys come over in a trade, you know a little bit about him. But you don’t know the small details.”
The team reached a crossroads after Cueto surrendered eight runs on Sept. 13 in Baltimore. At one point, Cueto raised his arms to the sky in exasperation after an inning ended. He and Perez maintained a dialogue, but the lack of chemistry between the two felt palpable to rival scouts.
“I think they were both a little frustrated,” Yost said. “And not with each other, but with the situation. Like Salvy saying, ‘Why can’t I get this guy going?” And Johnny saying, ‘Why can’t I pitch better?’ ”
Yost and Eiland asked the same question. So before they met with Cueto last week, Yost placed a call to Reds manager Bryan Price. He made the call from the ballpark. He placed Price on speakerphone so both he and Eiland could listen.
Price was Cueto’s pitching coach from 2009 to 2013. He mentioned to the Royals how important it was for Cueto to produce ground balls. On Friday, Cueto induced eight ground-ball outs compared with four fly-ball outs, in part, Yost believes, because he established a sense of comfort on the mound.
In addition, Eiland continues to work with Cueto about keeping his delivery compact and under control. During his monthlong struggle, Cueto often overrotated his hips in a vain attempt to generate velocity and additional spin on the baseball. The opposite often occurred.
There were fewer instances of hanging breaking balls on Friday. Cueto indicated after the game that he felt like himself. He thanked Perez for their improved communication.
The positioning does place some extra strain on Perez. But he appreciated the results so much that the next night, working with Edinson Volquez, Perez lowered his target again.
“Our catchers have to make adjustments and fulfill the needs of each particular pitcher,” Grifol said. “And if that’s what it is, and that’s what he wants, that’s what we’ve got to give him.”