Sam Mellinger

Twitter Tuesday: Royals panic, Chiefs parade, punching footballs, beating the Broncos, and a Johnny Cueto fact you don’t want to read

Johnny Cueto has given up 28 earned runs in his last five starts and batters are hitting .390/.411/.675 against him in that span, meaning Cueto is turning the average American League hitter into the 1980 version of George Brett.
Johnny Cueto has given up 28 earned runs in his last five starts and batters are hitting .390/.411/.675 against him in that span, meaning Cueto is turning the average American League hitter into the 1980 version of George Brett. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

The Royals stink right now. They have lost eight of 10, a stretch of stink matched only once before this season, and bad enough to bring back memories of when stink was the status quo.

In this stretch, they have lost blowouts and close games. They’ve lost while giving up just three runs, and they’ve lost while scoring eight. They’ve lost with Johnny Cueto on the mound, but also with each of their other four starting pitchers.

They are a lock for the playoffs, and still have the lead for best record in the American League, but we are now at the point where this is A Thing. There are still more than three weeks before the playoffs, and you can find comfort in that cushion, but the Royals need to clean this up.

They have long since earned the benefit of the doubt in these situations. On their path from punchline to the American League pennant they have faced far greater challenges. Nobody wants to admit it now, but there was much freaking out when the Royals lost nine of 11 in late May and early June.

They scored two or fewer runs in each of those nine losses, which also included The Jeremy Guthrie Game in New York. This time it’s the pitching, and mostly the starting pitching, though Kelvin Herrera has had consecutive bad outings for the first time in two years.

Last night, after another loss, I thought Joel Goldberg said it well on the postgame show. He talked about not freaking out, that it’s not in his personality, particularly after a season of so much success. That’s the personality of baseball, too. It’s such a long season, you won’t make it if you freak out, good or bad, at every turn.

“But there’s not a lot to like right now,” Joel said.

Pretty much.

But, hey, the Chiefs won! Some of you want to talk about that, too!

This week’s eating recommendation is the Señor Chang at The Bite, and the reading recommendation is John Branch with Two Weeks in New York with Serena Williams. The photos are spectacular, too, including one that my wife said should be on the wall of every young girl athlete’s room.

There is an evolution to these things. Worrying about one bad start from a pitcher with Johnny Cueto’s track record is an outright demand to not be taken seriously. Worrying about two bad starts more than a month before the playoffs start is a waste of energy. Worrying about three bad starts in a row is entirely understandable, so long as the context of time and track record are remembered.

Worrying about four bad starts is not just understandable, but required. And, now, worrying about five bad starts just means you’re watching the games.

My thinking in not getting too worked up about one, two, or even three bad starts from Cueto has always been, like, one part his track record^ and two parts the time before the playoffs^^.

^ 2.70 ERA over 130 starts the last five seasons.

^^ Game one of the Division Series is in 23 days. That’s forever. Last year, 23 days after the Wild Card game, the Royals were in San Francisco preparing for game three of the World Series.

Those two things are still true. So is the fact that all that matters for the Royals right now is the playoffs, and if Cueto had pitched five consecutive no-hitters for the Royals, it would guarantee the same thing in the playoffs as pitching five consecutive turds.

But hoping the fire trucks are on their way is a very different thing than not caring that there’s a fire in your kitchen.

I want to warn you about something. The next paragraph is going to be gruesome. I am telling you this because we are all friends here, and I want you to know what you’re getting into in case you just ate, or there are children near, or you are pregnant or hungover or otherwise not feeling 100 percent physically. This is going to be bad, and to make up for it I’m going to follow it with a happy video, but if you don’t think you’re up for the scary part then please skip straight to the video. OK. You’ve been warned. Here goes…

Johnny Cueto has given up 28 earned runs in his last five starts. Kyle Davies, best I can tell, never gave up that much in any five-start stretch. Same with Luke Hochevar, when he was starting. Sorry guys. Here’s your happy:

The numbers are outrageous. The league is hitting .390/.411/.675 against Cueto, meaning he is turning the average American League hitter into the 1980 version of George Brett. He has given up eight home runs in 124 at bats, which is a higher percentage (6.5) than Bryce Harper at the plate this year.

If you want to find a bright side, he has four walks and 20 strikeouts over 26 1/3 innings, and depending on your level of devotion to BABIP, he is getting extremely unlucky. I mean, exTREMELY unlucky:

An average of about 30 percent of balls in play typically fall for hits. Cueto, over his career, has beaten the average. He’s been at 27.8 percent. But since the trade, with presumably the best defense he’s ever had behind him, 34.6 percent of balls in play are dropping for hits. Over his last five starts, that number is 41.7 percent. If nothing else, you could reasonably expect his performance to improve based on nothing more than his luck evening out.

But it’s also not just luck, of course. He’s leaving too many pitches up in the zone, and too many pitches over the plate, too many of the kind of pitches that deserve to be hit very hard. The Royals are working as hard as they can to correct whatever’s the matter, and they are rightfully pointing to the fact that they have plenty of time before the playoffs.

All of that is fine, and all of that is fair, but this is a major problem. Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland is talking about a shaken confidence, and the playoffs are a little bit closer every day. His velocity is not a problem. It seems to be more about pitch location, execution, and perhaps sequence. A few mechanical fixes have already been attempted. The problems persist.

Cueto has three or four more starts to get right. A sizable chunk of the Royals’ postseason hopes depend on it.

One thing that’s not going to make you feel any better: the Royals have other issues to fix, aside from Cueto.

One thing that may or may not make you feel any better: every team has issues, and, generally speaking, how a team finishes the regular season is vastly overstated as an indicator of postseason success. Last year, from this point forward in the regular season, the Royals finished 10-9.

The Royals’ general diagnosis is that Cueto is putting too much pressure on himself, so a mental issue is turning into a mechanical one, but that explanation does not do much to calm concerns of how he’ll pitch in the playoffs, when the pressure becomes real.

The Packers, and seven.

There really was not much that didn’t go right for the Chiefs the other day. They were underwhelming in the second half, of course, but I really thought that was a bet by the coaches that the Texans could not get to 28 points without some help.

Vahe did a good job getting all the good in his column, and I enjoyed putting these GIFs together of some key plays. There was a lot to like, but for our purposes here let’s point to five in particular:

1. The offensive line did an admirable job against one of the league’s best defensive fronts. It was far from flawless. J.J. Watt had two sacks and six tackles for loss. The running game did not find a groove. But for all the moving parts, and the challenge in front of them, the Chiefs — and it was a group effort from the players and the coaches — stood tall. The line doesn’t need to be great. The Chiefs would LOVE to have good, and would take average. Another strong challenge is coming in two days, against a Broncos defense that is usually overlooked because of Peyton Manning. But you have to feel a lot better about that than you did three days ago.

2. Jeremy Maclin was very good, and you could see his impact on the rest of the offense. There is so much more space, particularly for Travis Kelce, when defenses have to worry about a good receiver. It’s worth repeating every week that the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver last year is now barely on the Browns.

3. The pass rush was consistent and relentless. Wasn’t only Justin Houston, either. I thought Tamba Hali missed a chance or two at a sack, but Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey stood out, blowing up the Texans’ line and pressuring Brian Hoyer, who certainly doesn’t need pressure to throw bad passes.

4. Derrick Johnson was back, in the literal and figurative sense. Mine is an amateur and often stupid eye, but I think Johnson isn’t quite as quick, or explosive as he was when we last saw him. He makes up for that in smarts, though, in pre snap reads and seeing the spot he needs to get to. The Chiefs were really, really bad against the run last year. Johnson will be an enormous help there.

5. Marcus Peters played well, even after that interception. He gave up a touchdown on a fade route, but it’s hard to fault the coverage. Peters was right there. DeAndre Hopkins is very good. But I thought Peters showed why a lot of people thought he was the best corner in the draft, and has to give Chiefs fans some level of confidence in how he’ll perform the next two weeks against Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers before Sean Smith returns from suspension.

GOAT is tough. You don’t want to throw that around all willy nilly, but there aren’t many times a celebration makes me flat out laugh. Michael Bennett does that. I do have to admit enjoying Chad Ochocinco’s Riverdance, and the time he pulled out the sign that said, “Please don’t fine me.” I also LOVE when a player makes fun of a guy on the other team, like when someone scores on the Giants and does Victor Cruz’s salsa dance, or the time Stevie Johnson mocked Plaxico Burress by pretending to shoot himself in the leg.

There is a high standard, is what I’m saying. Kelce’s wind-up-and-punch belongs in that category, I think, in part for the originality but also the cartoonish feel to it. I want Kelce to score all the touchdowns, if it means we get this kind of thing every week.

If you run a professional sports league, you know you have a problem when the NFL allows more personality and fun than you. This is a league that fines people if their socks aren’t the right height, for crying out loud.

Let there be bat flips, is what I’m saying.

It’s bonkers how quickly things change in the NFL. Like, I’m sitting here on Tuesday thinking the Chiefs have a realistic chance of beating the Broncos even though I know good and darn well they are 1-13 against Peyton Manning.

Strangest thing. I’m actually sitting here thinking this should be a column this week, all the reasons the Chiefs are going to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Thursday. I’ll talk about the Broncos’ offensive line and Manning’s limitations and about how the Ravens should’ve won in Denver last week.

I’ll do this while ignoring that the Broncos’ defense dominated the Ravens, allowing just 18 of 32 completions for 100 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. I’ll do this while hoping you forgot that I wrote something similar last year, right before the Broncos won 29-16 at Arrowhead in a game perhaps best remembered for Travis Kelce’s, um, gesture.

Nicely done.

This is an absolute first-world problem, the kind that the Royals have only dreamed of for years, but the drawback of an enormous division lead and no more 29-year playoff drought to talk about is it can shift the focus to a negative place.

And, to be sure, the Royals have some issues at the moment. Not just Cueto. The starting pitching has been, on the whole, mediocre for some time. The lineup is not set. Greg Holland has been vulnerable. We probably don’t need to go on.

But Troy Tulowitzki has a crack in his shoulder, and is out for at least a few weeks for the Blue Jays. The Yankees’ best hitter is out for the season, and their best starting pitcher has a 4.25 ERA. The Astros have won four games this month.

So, I’m not here to tell you the Royals are going to win the World Series. They might. They probably won’t. All I’m saying is that the problems aren’t as drastic as they seem at the moment, that the playoffs are still more than three weeks away, and that the way any team is playing right now has very little to do with how it will play in 23 days.

It should. David Glass is both bankrolling a franchise-record payroll, and almost certainly making a significant profit this year. Along with the record attendance is what has to be record revenue.

But these are still the Royals, and this is still the third smallest market in Major League Baseball — shout out to Milwaukee and Cincinnati — and, yes, they are still operating with an absolutely atrocious TV contract that puts them at a financial disadvantage to virtually everyone.

The other issue is that the payroll has to go up just to keep the team together. Alex Gordon is a free agent, and signing him will require – by far – the biggest contract in franchise history. But even beyond that, or signing Ben Zobrist^, the following players are due raises, either through their contracts or arbitration: Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, Wade Davis, Kendrys Morales, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Luke Hochevar, Kris Medlen, Greg Holland, Sal Perez, Kelvin Herrera, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Danny Duffy.

^ Or Johnny Cueto!

That’s a lot of raises, even with Alex Rios and Jeremy Guthrie coming off the books^.

^ Guthrie has a $3.2 million buyout.

But, yes. I would expect another record payroll next year. Cutting payroll after a year of success and record attendance would be an impossible sell to the public, and probably not even something that Glass would’ve tried before 2006.

Have to say, though, guys. All the fans showing up at the ballpark has not been entirely great…

The wave is a menace on a people, not unlike crime or bad traffic. It is an affront to common sense and decency. It takes the perfectly beautiful experience of watching a game with friends or family and turns people into mindless props, wasting the money they spent to do some hokey version of synchronized standing.

I hate the wave. Hate it like I hate the worst things in our world, like those hard bits that show up in your cheeseburger unannounced, and ballpark proposals. It’s important to me that you guys know I come at this from an honest place.

I’ve told this story here before, but I can’t find the link, but either way, I’ll keep it short. Through the genius of Baseball-Reference, I know that this happened in 1986 or 1987, when I was 11 or 12 years old, which is kind of the sweet spot for impressionable young sports fans.

I was at the game with my dad, and can still remember that we had seats on the first-base side, toward the back of the lower deck. The Royals are losing, but they are rallying. The bases are loaded, energy bursting from the stadium. Frank White is at the plate. This is the moment of the game, and every ounce of my attention and energy is focused on what’s happening on the field. I can hear that something is happening in the stadium, a loud roar that’s coming closer my way, but the bases loaded and Frank White is at the plate, so I’m not looking around.

Then, just as the pitch is delivered, everyone around me stands up like a group of morons, throwing their arms in the air and screaming like they’re on a bad roller coaster instead of at a great baseball game, and by the time I can peak around and see the field again, the rest of the stadium has erupted and Frank is running around the bases.

He hit a grand slam. Or, at least, I think he did. I didn’t see it. Because of the morons doing the wave. That was either 28 or 29 years ago. My hatred of the wave has not faded. Not one bit.

Sporting KC is hard to figure out. Sixteen goals given up in six games? The line of demarcation is amazing in its obviousness. On Aug. 15 — happy one-month anniversary! — Sporting KC beat Vancouver 4-3. Supporter’s Shield aspirations were high. The team had lost only four — FOUR! — times in 22 games.

Since then, the wheels have come off — 0-4-1 in five games, with any memory of what the team is supposed to look like requiring a refresher. The defense has looked slow, and too often leaned on Tim Melia to make ridiculous saves.

The comparison to Cueto is pretty strong. Sporting KC has a strong track record, both historically and this season. It also has a disastrous run of five games, with the regular season quickly running out. Both are inviting questions about stamina, among other things, and at some point, there needs to be some urgency.

I’m actually optimistic that both Cueto and Sporting KC will rally, but you asked a question, and if I had to pick one I’d take Cueto. I’m encouraged by his walk and strikeout rates through this slump, and am trusting the velocity and Royals trainers that there’s nothing wrong physically.

Meh.

They should’ve been a lot better than needing to hold on against Arkansas State, no matter where the game was played, but it’s hard to get too freaked out. Neither quarterback was good, and the inconsistency of the offense is worth keeping an eye on.

But the defense has looked strong, and maybe part of the problem on offense is a rotation of injuries in the backfield. That’s a big concern. The injury to Russell Hansbrough, obviously, is the most important one. Assuming his injury isn’t going to be an ongoing thing, I’d rather see Mizzou struggle with him before getting too worked up.

UConn is no good, and Mizzou should roll this weekend at home. If that doesn’t happen, or if the injuries continue to mount, then maybe the discussion is different.

The chances are 12 percent, and K-State will win 59-17. If you see a KU football player, give that man a hug.

The number is a little high, but reachable. Baylor put 60 on KU last year, and and K-State did 51. KU is worse than it was a year ago, and that seems especially true on defense.

The games to look out for are Baylor at home on Oct. 10, and at TCU on Nov. 14. I tend to look at the home games as the ones where the score can get most out of hand, because teams have to limit their travel party, and as such have better players finishing out blowouts. One thing that might work in KU’s favor, though, is the Baylor game is the day after Late Night, so the atmosphere may be particularly sterile, meaning Baylor may sleepwalk through some of the game the same way TCU did last year.

Anyway, you want an answer. I’m taking the under on 75 1/2, but would probably have a different answer if the number was 65 1/2.

Sports betting is going to be legal. There’s too much money to be made. My son is 18 months old, and I would bet his college tuition — see what I did there?! — that it will be legal for him to bet on games when he grows up. Kids in grade school right now will not know a world in which sports betting is illegal, the same way that nobody in England knows a world in which sports betting is illegal.

But, anyway, those ads are a more tired act than J.J. Watt hype. They need to be stopped. Yesterday. And as my guy Kevin Kaduk points out, the dude from the Draft Kings commercial is on Twitter as @DaveTheChamp8 — retweeting people ripping the commercial.

Somehow, that makes me feel like America is working.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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