Judging the Royals

Johnny Cueto’s confusing condition

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) throws in the first inning during Sunday's baseball game against the Chicago White Sox on September 6, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) throws in the first inning during Sunday's baseball game against the Chicago White Sox on September 6, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

If you find yourself confused about what’s going on with Royals pitcher Johnny Cueto, join the club.

And after you read this article (you are going to read this article aren’t you?) you probably won’t be any less confused, but you’ll have a better understanding of why you’re confused.

And if that last sentence was confusing, I’ve done my job.

Let’s go back to Sept. 1 and Johnny Cueto’s start against the Detroit Tigers.

Johnny threw six innings and gave up four runs, which doesn’t sound so hot, but in the fifth and sixth innings he appeared to make an adjustment. In those two innings Johnny faced six batters and got all six out.

A couple of days later, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland told me Cueto had been flying open on his front side. That means Johnny’s front shoulder was rotating toward first base instead of driving toward home plate.

That put Johnny’s throwing hand more on the side of the ball, made him miss his release point and the ball would end up arm-side high. Fastballs were up in the zone, cutters and changeups were flat, high and hittable.

The Royals felt that Johnny had corrected that problem and it showed in those last two innings against Detroit.

Sunday’s pre-game press conference

In the old days reporters tracked down the manager whenever they could find him and asked whatever questions they had.

Baseball teams have since gotten smarter and now hold a pre-game press conference with the manager so he only has to answer the same question once. Ned Yost usually holds this pre-game conference in the dugout, but on Sundays Ned does it in his office.

So Sunday morning we all trudged into Ned’s office and stared at him while we tried to think of some non-stupid questions to ask. The office was crammed with media, but only three people spoke up.

To be fair, everybody’s working at less than full capacity on a Sunday morning. Teams play every Saturday night and Sunday morning everybody’s short of sleep. And if you don’t have anything smart to ask, you count on other reporters to do the questioning. But when everyone has decided to let someone else ask the questions, it can get pretty quiet — and embarrassing.

Ned was staring at us like he was wondering why he had his office filled with people who had nothing to ask when another reporter asked about Cueto’s mechanical problems.

Then I piped up and asked if Johnny’s success in his the last two innings of that Detroit start indicated he had the problem fixed. Ned said yes and also said the adjustment had carried over to Johnny’s side sessions; Cueto looked good in those as well.

Sunday’s game

Unfortunately that adjustment did not appear to carry over to Sunday’s game against the White Sox. In the first inning Johnny faced five batters before he got an out and since there are only three bases, runs were scoring.

Johnny struck out the final two batters of the first inning, but once again, his command was not great. Pitches were up in the zone and missing location. Cueto pitched three innings and gave up seven hits on Sunday; three on cutters, two on changeups and one each on a slider and fastball.

Sunday’s post-game press conference

Big league managers also do a post-game interview and after Sunday’s game Ned Yost was questioned about Cueto. Ned said Johnny was physically fine; there was no issue with his shoulder, elbow, legs or back. Ned was asked to identify his level of concern about Cueto and Ned said: "None."

Ned was asked about Cueto’s mechanics (me again) and Ned said Johnny’s mechanics were just fine. So if Johnny’s not injured and his mechanics are fine, why is he getting hit?

Ned explained it this way: "He’s just not throwing the ball well."

In the clubhouse after the press-conference

Once Ned Yost finishes his post-game press conference, all the reporters march over to the clubhouse to talk to the players. After a loss players are unhappy and would rather not talk to us. They’d also rather not to talk to us after a win, but after a loss they really don’t feel like talking.

If that sounds unprofessional think about it this way: let’s say every time you had a bad day at work, a group of reporters got to ask you about it. Why do you think it was so bad? What did you do wrong? Are you disappointed that you let your company down?

Now let’s say that you’re in a business where even the best workers fail 40 percent of the time. (Even great teams lose about four out of ten ballgames.) It wouldn’t take long for you to get sick of answering the same questions about bad days.

And what if you were asked about a co-worker? "Hey, Joe had a bad day; how concerned are you about Joe dragging the company down?" Any co-worker worth a damn would not throw Joe under the bus. A good co-worker knows that next time he might be the one who has a bad day and he doesn’t want Joe talking bad about him when that happens.

That’s why players consider those types of questions dumb: there’s only one way to answer them and anyone who knows his way around a clubhouse would not expect a player to criticize a teammate.

Heeere’s Johnny!

After every game reporters gather around the starting pitcher’s locker to ask questions and write down quotes. Sunday was no exception; we all gathered around Johnny Cueto’s locker, but the only thing that was missing was Johnny Cueto.

Johnny came walking up and couldn’t get to his locker because we’d formed a human barricade around it. All the reporters scramble for a good position, especially the TV people because they need a clear camera shot of the victim.

So in our haste to establish our territory, we’d blocked out the guy we needed to talk to. We had to be asked to move so Johnny could get to his locker. (And reporters wonder why players think we’re dumb.)

Once Johnny was in position we started firing questions at him and Royals coach Pedro Grifol interpreted Johnny’s answers. If you’ve watched Johnny on camera and it seems like he speaks enough English to understand the questions he’s being asked, you’re right. But a lot of Spanish-speaking players still want to use an interpreter on camera; they may not have enough confidence in their English and don’t want to make a mistake.

If I were giving interviews in the Dominican Republic, I’m pretty sure I’d want an interpreter because mi espanol es muy malo. (I either just said my Spanish is very bad or insulted someone’s mother.)

Through Pedro, Johnny said he feels fine and has no physical issues. Johnny was then asked about mechanical issues and said he had none.

I tend to stand at the back of the crowd for a couple reasons: I don’t need a clear view of the player and I’m tired of getting hit in the back of the head by TV cameramen who feel free to elbow their way to the front of the crowd, even though they arrive late.

I also tend to wait until the press conference is breaking up to ask my question because my question is usually a little technical and will take some explaining by the player. Everybody else is on deadline and I try not to slow down the other reporters with a long conversation about the intricacies of a double steal—or in this case, a front shoulder flying open.

When Johnny was asked a general question about his mechanics he said he had no issues, but when I asked a specific question about his front shoulder flying open, he nodded and admitted it was part of the problem. The other reporters were peeling off to talk to some other player while Johnny and I stood there and talked about his front shoulder.

I asked about his side sessions and said I’d heard they were good. Johnny said they were, but when the game started the problem showed up again and he wasn’t sure why. I asked if adrenaline had anything to do with it and Johnny shrugged. (On the other hand, I don’t know the Spanish word for adrenaline, so that might have been part of the problem.)

In any case, Johnny said he’s never struggled with flying open before so fixing it is a bit of a mystery. I said at least he had a month to figure it out. So if you’re on the Johnny-needs-to-miss-a-start bandwagon, you’re probably wrong—Johnny needs to pitch and pitch in games to get this problem fixed. A lot of people seem confused about Johnny Cueto’s problem and right now that seems to include Johnny Cueto.

But he isn’t going to fix it while sitting on the bench.