Judging the Royals

Johnny Cueto’s off-speed stuff is getting hit

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

It’s kind of arrogant to sit six floors above a baseball field, eating a cup of soft-serve ice cream and think you can diagnose what’s wrong with a pitcher — especially if the only time you’ve ever stood on a pitcher’s mound was just to see what it felt like. (News flash: it feels pretty cool.)

Pitching is complicated for the people who know what they’re doing; for those of us in the media—people who don’t have much experience on a baseball diamond — it can be a complete mystery.

Nevertheless…

Wednesday night Johnny Cueto threw five innings, gave up eight hits, six runs and the Baltimore Orioles won the game 8-5. Of those eight hits, seven came on off-speed pitches and the Orioles hit three home runs off cutters.

In his previous start Cueto threw six innings, gave up 13 hits, seven runs and the Boston Red Sox won the game 7-2. Of those 13 hits, 11 came on off-speed pitches and the only Boston home run was hit off a cutter.

So there’s the evidence, what can we (those of us who don’t really know what we’re talking about) reasonably conclude?

Johnny Cueto should never throw another off-speed pitch in his life.

Just kidding

A pitcher cannot abandon an important pitch in his arsenal just because it isn’t working at the moment. He has to find spots where he can throw it so he gets the feel back. We sometimes see a pitcher throw a pitch in the dirt and assume it was a bad pitch. Maybe — or maybe he was ahead in the count and decided to bounce his slider, curve, change or cutter just to get the feel for it.

After Wednesday’s game I asked Ned Yost if Cueto should have abandoned the cutter for the night once he realized he didn’t have a good one. Ned said no; Johnny needed to make an adjustment, not junk the pitch. And to be fair, not every off-speed pitch Cueto threw got whacked. Some of them appeared to work as intended, some of them didn’t.

Cueto’s fastball

After Cueto gave up his second or third home run — I don’t remember which — another reporter asked me what I was seeing? Was there any indication that Cueto was hurt?

First of all, unless Johnny threw a pitch and his arm flew off and landed in the dugout, I’d have no idea if he had a physical problem. It’s easy, and often erroneous, to conclude that any pitcher who scuffles has something wrong with his arm.

We study radar gun readings because we understand them and not much else. (And we may not actually understand them: any ballplayer will tell you that 92 mph with movement is better than 96 without.) Even so, if a guy is a few miles an hour down in velocity we sometimes assume he’s hurt when it’s really a mechanical issue. Pitchers tend to hide injuries from their own teams and trainers, so the idea that reporters can diagnose a physical ailment while eating a tub of nachos is kind of ludicrous.

But just for grins, let’s look at Cueto’s velocity.

According to the web site FanGraphs, Johnny Cueto’s average fastball velocity in 2015 is 92.1 mph. Wednesday night Cueto threw a whole bunch of 94-mph fastballs and a few at 95, so velocity did not appear to be a problem. Assuming Johnny Cueto is healthy — and we have no evidence he isn’t — he needs to make a mechanical adjustment that improves his off-speed stuff.

And he’s got more than five weeks to do it.

Dave Eiland’s fourth-inning mound visit

Opinions are based on evidence and conclusions. Sometimes I don’t want to reach a conclusion because I’m not sure I have all the evidence. For example:

In the fourth inning of Wednesday night’s game, Jonathan Schoop saw four cutters in a row and hit the fourth one up by the Royals Hall of Fame. The next hitter — Ryan Flaherty — saw five off-speed pitches in a row (two change-ups, two sliders and one cutter) and walked. Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland then visited the mound.

The next hitter — Manny Machado — saw nothing but fastballs and popped out to Eric Hosmer. I don’t have enough evidence to conclude that Dave said throw more fastballs, but if I run into him Thursday, I’ll ask.

Mike Moustakas and why trying harder doesn’t work

They say baseball is a funny sport. Say that around a baseball player and he might respond: “It ain’t that funny.” But it is a sport in which trying harder is counter-productive.

Just ask Mike Moustakas.

Moose is currently on a hot streak: he’s hitting .500 over the last week, .317 over the last two weeks with four home runs thrown in. Ask Mike how he’s doing it and he’ll talk about making an adjustment with his hands.

When a hitter over-swings, his body tightens up and his front shoulder leads the way. His hands are late and dragging through the zone. And when the front shoulder goes, the head usually goes with it. So other than being stiff, not seeing the ball and dragging the bat through the hitting zone, not much can go wrong when you swing as hard as you can.

Relax, loosen up and good stuff happens.

Now the hands lead the way, the head stays down and bat flies through the hitting zone. That’s what Mike is doing right now and we’re all seeing the benefits of the time he’s spent in the batting cage with hitting coach Dale Sveum. If it sounds like a tiny adjustment, it is; but it’s paying off big.

And that brings us to…

Is outdoor batting practice really necessary?

The Royals did not take outside batting practice on Wednesday and will not take it Thursday morning either. That doesn’t mean the guys aren’t swinging the bats, they’re just doing it on their own schedule using the indoor cage.

The Royals are currently second in the American League when it comes to team batting average and have a 12-game lead in the Central Division. And that 12-game lead is crucial; if the Royals were behind by 12 games, you can bet they’d be out there swinging the bats for everyone to see.

As Rusty Kuntz put it: if you have a 12-game lead and don’t take BP it looks like you’re resting guys, if you’re behind by 12 games and don’t take BP it looks like you’ve given up.

But if getting your players rest in August keeps them fresh for the games they have to play, is outdoor batting practice really necessary?

The Royals seem to be proving it isn’t.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.

  Comments