Judging the Royals

Here’s what’s wrong with Johnny Cueto

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

A couple days ago I asked what was wrong with Johnny Cueto, and immediately I had to admit I didn’t know the answer. Cueto has scuffled in his last three starts and a lot of people would like to know why. On Wednesday afternoon, I got to talk to a guy who might actually know what’s going on with Cueto — Royals pitching coach, Dave Eiland.

According to Dave, the reason Johnny’s been struggling lately is pretty simple; Cueto’s front shoulder has been flying open.

Here’s what that means in English: when a pitcher throws a ball to home plate, his front shoulder should drive forward in that direction. That keeps the throwing arm on line and the pitcher’s hand on top of the ball. That throwing motion is going North-South.

But if a pitcher flies open, his shoulder is rotating toward first base (assuming the pitcher’s right-handed) instead of moving forward. Now his throwing motion is going East-West. When the front side flies open, the throwing arm is late, the hand moves more to the side of the ball, the pitches flatten out — cutters spin, fastballs and change-up stay up in the zone — and the pitcher tends to miss high and in on the arm side.

It actually might be quite a bit more complicated than that, but that’s about all my brain could absorb as Dave was demonstrating what happens to a pitcher who flies open.

The good news is Dave said Johnny feels good and Dave sees no warning signs that would indicate arm problems. Dave also says Johnny is aware of what the problem is and has been working to correct it. Now here’s another piece of good news: Johnny thinks he found the correct motion in the last two innings of his last start. Cueto wanted to come out for one more inning, but his pitch count prevented that.

Assuming Johnny Cueto found the correct throwing motion and assuming he can find it again in his next start, Royals fans should see a very different performance.

Edinson Volquez had the same problem

If you watched Thursday night’s game — a 15-7 Royals win over the Tigers — you already know starting pitcher Edinson Volquez only lasted three innings while giving up six earned runs. If you want to know why Volquez was struggling, reread the stuff about Johnny Cueto — Edinson Volquez was having the same problem.

Flying open is such a common problem for pitchers, catchers have a sign for it. They’ll tap their glove side shoulder to alert the pitcher that he’s flying open and needs to keep his front shoulder closed. The catcher also will make a come-to-me motion with both hands and that’s telling the pitcher to drive toward home plate; don’t fly off to the side.

Kelvin Herrera can have the same problem. In fact, any pitcher that tries to overthrow risks flying open. So the good news is the Royals pitchers know what’s going and what has to be corrected; the bad news is that correcting it isn’t always easy or quick.

But they have a month to figure it out.

How 3-2 counts hurt a pitcher

They say a pitcher’s best friend is the double play; turning two can get pitchers out of some sticky situations. But in many cases the pitcher needs to throw that double play ball before he gets to a 3-2 count.

Several times during this Detroit-Kansas City series, pitchers lost the chance for a double play by allowing the count to go full. If the count goes full and the batter has a good chance of making contact, managers will often put the runner in motion. That risks a strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play, but prevents a more traditional 6-4-3, 4-6-3 type double play.

So if you’re a pitcher and you have one down and runners on first and third, you need to throw that double-play pitch before the count goes full. Otherwise, the runner can go in motion, you only get one out and the run scores.

Miguel Cabrera: is he bigger than the game?

“He thinks he’s bigger than the game” is a baseball insult. It’s an insult hurled at players who don’t observe the unwritten rules and traditions of baseball and Wednesday night, that’s just what Miguel Cabrera did.

Miggy was called out on strikes by home plate umpire Quinn Wolcott. It’s OK for a hitter to express disagreement, but baseball tradition requires that do it in a way that doesn’t show up the umpire. Keep your head down and express you opinion, or do it as you walk away, but you don’t do what Miguel Cabrera did: Miggy threw his hands up in the air and expressed disgust and exasperation — he was playing to the crowd and umpires don’t like that.

Wolcott let Cabrera throw a tantrum, and then he held up a hand as if to say: OK, that’s enough. Umpires will usually let a player know when they’re about to be ejected — stop now or you’re gone.

That’s when Cabrera decided to carry his complaint down to third base umpire and crew chief, Gary Cederstrom. That’s something you really don’t do: hold up a baseball game while you wander around looking for someone to complain to. Cabrera was ejected and rightfully so.

Nobody’s bigger than the game — not even Miguel Cabrera.

Miguel Almonte mixes up pitches

On Tuesday night, Royals pitcher Miguel Almonte made his major-league debut against the Detroit Tigers and got in trouble when catcher Salvador Perez called eight straight fastballs; seven of them to Ian Kinsler. Kinsler hit the final fastball of his at bat out of the park and that two-run homer provided the difference in a 6-5 Royals loss.

Right after that homer, Salvy began to mix it up and called for some breaking balls and change-ups.

On Thursday night, Almonte got to pitch once again, this time to Drew Butera, who went to Miguel’s secondary pitches almost immediately with much better results. If you’re looking at MLB.com, don’t be fooled by Almonte’s 90-mph fastball; that’s actually his change-up. Almonte throws in the high 90s and if the catcher mixes in curves and change-ups, that high-90s fastball looks even harder.

What to watch for Friday

Kris Medlen’s on the mound Friday night and he mainly features a fastball, curveball and change. Pay attention to see if Medlen throws that change-up to righties. If he does, he’s a three-pitch pitcher to right-handed batters; if he doesn’t, he’s a two-pitch pitcher and a right handed hitter’s job gets a lot easier.

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

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