There is a problem with Johnny Cueto, and by now the pattern is long enough and the stakes high enough that it is the Royals’ biggest concern.
These are first-world problems, of course, because the Royals are 12 games up in the division and four games for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. A year ago, they were desperate to end a 29-year playoff drought. Now, they will likely clinch a playoff spot next weekend.
But problems are problems, and no matter what they say about not being worried, the Royals did not trade three left-handed pitching prospects with the expectation that their new ace pitcher would give up 21 runs in 20 innings over four starts.
The latest may be the most concerning. Cueto lasted just three innings in what turned out to be a 7-5 loss. He did this against one of the worst hitting teams in the American League, and in a context where he had every opportunity and motivation to fix the mistakes of his three previous starts.
Before we go any further, we should point out that a good chunk of Cueto’s bad streak can be explained by rotten luck. That’s being mostly overlooked, but it’s true. With the help of the awesome FanGraphs, we can see that Cueto is giving up way more base hits on balls in play without a discernible spike in the quality of contact.
He is giving up hard contact at the same or lower rate than normal in his last four starts, but is giving up nearly twice as many base hits on that contact. Without any other adjustments, we could fairly expect an improvement in results from nothing more than rotten luck evening out.
In the middle of the storm, this is the kind of thing that sometimes makes us roll our eyes. But when the skies clear, it often looks more and more like the best explanation.
As it stands, Cueto has made eight starts for his temporary team. The first, against Toronto, was OK. The next three ranged from very good (seven innings, two runs) to terrific (shutout with eight strikeouts and no walks). The last four have been awful.
It’s fine for the Royals to project confidence. Cueto still has an outstanding track record earned over eight big league seasons and 221 starts. But even if we ignore the injury concerns some teams had, we must acknowledge that he has never gone through a stretch like this.
That is not an exaggeration. He has never given up 21 runs in a stretch of four starts. Bill James created a metric called Game Score to judge starting pitchers. We’ll spare you the details, but anything under 50 is considered below average. This is Cueto’s first streak of four sub-50 starts in a row since 2009, his second year in the big leagues.
Again, some of this is very bad luck. But not all of it, and there are any number of ways to do this. In the most technical terms, he seems to be “flying open,” which is baseball jargon for Cueto’s left shoulder drifting too far toward first base – a killer for both command and movement.
Beyond that, it’s worth noting that Cueto’s fastball velocity is actually up a tick since the trade. Each of his pitches have been hit hard at different points of this stretch, which might signal a more fundamental problem.
One issue is he’s been falling behind in counts. This has been a problem throughout this four-start stretch, and for a pitcher who relies on command, this changes everything. It means Cueto has to come into the zone, which means hitters can be more aggressive, and there are fewer swinging strikes.
Combine that with a mechanical flaw that is flattening his cutter and fogging his command, and you have a powder keg for problems.
Cueto probably has five more starts in the regular season. That’s more than enough time to identify and fix the problems, and the Royals have the benefit of a big lead to work with. But Cueto is essential to what they’re trying to do here, in both tangible and intangible terms.
They have to get him right. Here’s a closer look at each of the hits he gave up on Sunday and a reminder that I am a sports writer and not a pitching coach.
First inning: 0-1 cutter to Adam Eaton, on the outside part of the plate but up in the zone. If you watch Sal Perez’s glove, you can see that Cueto misses his spot by a good margin.
0-1 fastball to Alexei Ramirez, on the inside corner of the plate. This pitch looked a little flat, and without great velocity – 90 mph – it was crushed. With a whisper more of a wind it’s a home run. As it is, it bounced off, literally, the top of the wall.
1-1 change-up to Jose Abreu, on the inside part of the plate but, again, up in the zone. This was not a particularly hard hit ball, but it wasn’t a cheap hit, either. Change-ups up in the zone deserve to be base hits.
First pitch cutter to Avasail Garcia, near the knees and outside the zone. This pitch is hard to fault, except that it was made with the bases loaded and no outs. Cueto throws a ton of strikes, and particularly with the bases loaded, it’s a good idea to be aggressive.
Second inning: 1-1 cutter to Ramirez, inside part of the plate, in on the hands. This is rotten luck. Weak contact, and it’s a play that Omar Infante could have made. Probably should have made.
Third inning: 2-2 slider to Melky Cabrera, low but over the middle of the plate. This was a seven pitch at bat in which Cueto did not distinguish himself. There were a couple pitches, the first in particular, a flat slider, that could’ve been hit hard. To be fair, Cabrera battled a bit here. There was a 2-2 fastball – 93 mph – that was a good pitch and fouled off.
0-1 cutter to Adam LaRoche, and this was a bad pitch. He was trying to get this ball on the outside part of the plate, but missed his spot. Most left handed hitters make a lot of money on pitches low and inside. Cueto got what he deserved here.
So, right. A mix of bad execution (Ramirez’s double), bad luck (Ramirez’s single), and bad context (Garcia’s bases loaded single).
Like most problems, this one does not come with a simple solution. Some teams had concerns about Cueto’s health, so that must be addressed, but there is no obvious problem with velocity. The biggest issue seems to be falling behind early in the count, and an inconsistency with the movement of his slider and cutter.
Advance scouts have picked up on this, and are telling hitters to be aggressive early in counts, knowing Cueto likes to be around the strike zone.
Cueto has always been more about inducing weak contact that accumulating strikeouts, his success built more on smarts and command than stuff and power. So the margins here can be thin.
If we can assume there’s nothing wrong physically, knowing that some of this is bad luck and much of the rest of it is simple execution can bring some optimism that this can be fixed.
Cueto has a terrific track record, and now about five starts before the playoffs to get right. At this point, it’s silly to freak out. But it’s also silly to pretend this will just fix itself.