Judging the Royals

Salvador Perez, Miguel Almonte and one too many fastballs

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

After Kansas City lost to Detroit Tuesday night, Wednesday morning everyone is talking about Johnny Cueto and asking what’s up with him. I’ll talk about Cueto shortly, but right now let’s focus on a moment that probably cost the Royals the game — it came in the seventh inning and Johnny Cueto wasn’t on the mound.

Cueto had another rough outing and was replaced by a rookie making his big-league debut: Miguel Almonte. At that point, the score was Detroit 4, Kansas City 2.

Playing in the big leagues for the first time is usually a nerve-wracking moment. Players talk about the jitters and how fast the game comes at them. No wonder Almonte threw a first-pitch fastball; throw the easiest pitch to throw for a strike and get your feet underneath you.

Unfortunately, Detroit Tiger Anthony Gose was thinking along the same lines; he ambushed that first-pitch fastball and singled. Fair enough: nobody out, a runner on first base — but not a disaster.

But then Almonte and catcher Salvador Perez teamed up to throw seven more fastballs in a row to Ian Kinsler. Almonte throws in the high 90s, but no matter how hard you throw, big-league hitters can dial it up and hit the heater — especially if they see nothing but fastballs.

Go back and watch the replay of Jose Iglesias RBI single in the top of the second inning; now look in the background. What you’re going to see is Ian Kinsler in the Tigers dugout timing pitches. Smart hitters stand in the on-deck circle or in the dugout and figure out when they have to start their swing to hit a pitcher’s fastball.

So if Almonte threw eight warmup pitches before the seventh inning started and most of those warmup pitches were fastballs (I wasn’t smart enough to keep track) and then threw a fastball to Gose and seven more fastballs to Kinsler, Ian had plenty of opportunities to time Almonte’s heater. Right after Kinsler hit that bomb, Salvy started calling off-speed pitches, but it was one batter too late.

That two-run home run provided the difference in 6-5 Tiger victory.

I don’t know if a rookie pitcher making his big-league debut had the huevos rancheros to shake off his All-Star catcher; if he did I missed it. And even if Almonte shook to get to that fastball, sometimes it’s an All-Star catcher’s job to overrule a rookie pitcher. If a kid like Almonte is following Sal’s lead, Sal cannot get fastball happy.

Tuesday night it looked Salvador Perez called for one too many fastballs and Miguel Almonte, following his catcher’s lead, threw it.

What’s wrong with Johnny Cueto?

Seriously; I’m asking what’s wrong with Johnny Cueto because I’m 100 percent positive I don’t know. In his last three starts Cueto has thrown 17 innings and given up 16 earned runs. His ERA coming into those three games was 2.46. Johnny’s ERA in those three games is (let’s see, earned runs, times nine, carry the three, divide by innings pitched, less gross adjusted income is…) a lot.

So what’s up with Johnny Cueto?

During Tuesday’s 6-5 loss to the Detroit Tigers I was asked if Cueto had abandoned his fastball. Johnny threw 100 pitches and, if I counted right, 58 of them were fastballs and even without a calculator I know that’s dang close to 58 percent; so I guess I’d say no.

So how about fastball velocity?

According to Fangraphs, Johnny’s average fastball velocity this season is 92.1 mph. Of the 58 fastballs Cueto threw, 48 of them were 92 mph or faster and he topped out at 96. So his velocity was there.

In his previous two starts Johnny was mainly giving up hits on cutters and change-ups, which might make you think his off-speed stuff is the problem, but Tuesday night he gave up hits on fastballs as well as off-speed stuff, so there’s goes that theory.

After the game Ned Yost said Cueto wasn’t “sharp” for the first few innings, so make of that what you will. But let’s try and figure out what that not being “sharp” means.

Rusty Kuntz explains how to watch games on TV

Before Tuesday’s game, Rusty Kuntz and I talked about watching baseball on TV. When the Royals are away and I have to watch the games on television, Rusty asked if I was focused on the catcher’s mitt or drunk.

“Can’t I be both?”

Personal problems aside, when you watch games on TV you get a very good view of home plate. Focus on the catcher’s mitt and how much it moves. That will tell you a lot about the pitcher and his control. And if the catcher’s mitt moves up or toward the middle of the plate, the pitcher is about to get whacked.

Tuesday night Salvador Perez’s mitt was moving up and toward the middle of the plate. It didn’t move a lot, but this is the big leagues; miss your spot by a few inches and the hitters will make you pay.

So as near as I can tell, Johnny Cueto not being “sharp” means he was missing his spots and paying the price. But pitching is waaay complicated and I don’t know all that much about it. So when I get a chance, I’ll ask someone who does: Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland.

But Dave can be hard to catch

Here’s a primer on sports reporting: when the media is gathered around an athlete, shoving microphones and cameras in his or her face, most athletes go into cliché mode. It’s way of protecting themselves. The athlete probably doesn’t know everyone in the crowd and certainly doesn’t trust them, so they spew out a series of sports clichés.

If all you need is a quote for a story, those media flash mobs will suffice. But if you want to have a real conversation with an athlete or coach you have to catch them on their own. And even if the athlete or coach trusts you, they don’t always have the time to talk.

Coaches do not spend much time in the clubhouse, that’s the players’ area. They’ll come out and talk to a player on occasion, but coaches spend most of their time in the coaches room, in the video room or on the field. And pitching coaches spend most of their field time in the bullpen.

So to talk to Dave Eiland, I’ve got to catch him on his way to the bullpen — and at that point he’s usually scheduled to meet with a pitcher — or on his way back to the clubhouse. And at that point Dave may have stuff he needs to do to prepare for that night’s game.

Sometimes fans will ask why don’t you go talk to a guy and not realize you just don’t have complete access to everybody at all times; you’ve got to pick your spots. But I’ll try to talk to Dave as soon as possible and tell you what I find out.

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

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