Judging the Royals

What makes Royals ace pitcher Johnny Cueto unique?

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) throws in the first inning during Monday's baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on August 10, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) throws in the first inning during Monday's baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on August 10, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

Most pitchers struggle with one delivery, Johnny Cueto has three: a quick pitch, a Luis Tiant turn-your-back-to-home-plate delivery and the Luis Tiant delivery with a booty shake thrown in.

Most starting pitchers throw three of four pitches, but according to the website FanGraphs, Johnny Cueto throws five or six: a fastball, a cutter, a changeup, a slider, a curve and 5.4 percent of the time, Johnny throws a pitch they can’t identify.

According to Warren Spahn, hitting is timing and pitching is disrupting timing and Johnny Cueto disrupts timing in some unique ways.

He has three different deliveries

Most hitters start their swings by taking a step with their front foot while moving their hands back. When the front foot hits down and the hands are cocked back — ready to start the swing’s forward motion — the hitter is in "launch" position. So with Johnny Cueto on the mound, when do you start your swing?

If you start it to be on time for his quick-pitch delivery and he does the Luis Tiant move, you’ve started too soon. If you start your swing in order to be ready for that Luis Tiant delivery and he uses the quick pitch, you’ve started too late. And if he throws in a booty shake, you’re really messed up.

You could start your swing early and then hold it in the launch position as you wait for Johnny to spin his back to the plate and shake his rear end at you, but then you’ve lost all momentum — you’ll be swinging from a dead stop.

Most pitchers disrupt timing by throwing pitches with different speeds, but Johnny Cueto has added another layer of deception: he throws pitches at different speeds, but he also makes things much more difficult by using different deliveries.

The Kansas City Star’s Vahe Gregorian and Tod Palmer discuss the Kansas City Royals' trade for Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto, and the win by Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura over the Houston Astros on Sunday. Video by John Sleezer/The Kansas City

He adds and subtracts

Once again, you get to be the hitter: you’re in a 2-0 count and you’re pretty damn sure you’re going to get a fastball. Smart pitchers add and subtract — they add or subtract a few miles an hour from each pitch.

So if you’re waiting on a Johnny Cueto fastball, are you getting the one that goes 96 mph or the one he throws at 88? If you’re sitting on a changeup; which one? The 85 mph changeup or the 80 mph version? Slider? You might get one at 82 and another at 79.

He uses the entire strike zone

I spent part of Monday night’s game sitting next to ex-Royals closer Jeff Montogomery and asked him what he saw when he watched Queto pitch.

Monty said some pitchers work down in the zone, others work up in the zone, but doing both is rare — Cueto was doing both. Johnny was also working in and out, so hitters could not look for a pitch in any particular part of the zone.

Jeff also said most pitchers make a living by throwing pitches that appear to be strikes, but then move out of the zone. Cueto was doing that, but he was also throwing pitches that appeared to be balls, but moved back into the zone. That’s when a hitter takes a called strike three.

He can throw all his pitches right away

Lots of starting pitchers try to go as far as they can on their fastball; they don’t want hitters to see their secondary pitches too soon. They’d like to save that off-speed stuff for the second or third at bats so they can show the hitters something they haven’t seen before.

In the first inning of Monday night’s game, Johnny Cueto threw 12 pitches total and four different types of pitches: fastball, slider, cutter and change. He threw one pitch at 83 mph and another at 95. Because he has so many combinations of pitches, speeds and deliveries, Johnny doesn’t have to save anything for later. He’s always got another trick up his sleeve.

He made a good hitting tam look bad

The Detroit Tigers are first in team batting average, third in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging percentage and third in OPS. And Monday night Johnny Cueto threw a four-hit, no walk, complete game shutout against them.

It doesn’t mean he’ll never get hit or every performance will be as good as Monday night’s, but it does mean when Johnny Cueto starts and he’s on his game, the Royals have an excellent chance of winning.

Monday night Johnny Cueto showed us what an ace looks like.

Kansas City Star' Andy McCullough and Vahe Gregorian talk about the Royals' Johnny Cueto's first victory as a Royal, in a 4-0 shutout if he Detroit Tigers.

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