Cueto's struggles not as bad as they appear
Royals' star right-hander may need to make minor adjustments to get on track
The Royals traded for Johnny Cueto on July 26, and at first, all went according to plan. In Cueto's first four starts for Kansas City, he allowed only six earned runs in 30 innings. But then he allowed six earned runs to Boston, and six more to Baltimore, and finally four more on Tuesday night against Detroit. It's the first time since 2012 that he's allowed three or more runs in three straight starts, and even though the Royals have already sewn up the AL Central, you can feel the worry among the fan base that was so excited to get him only a month ago: What's wrong with Cueto?
It wouldn't be unfair at all to wonder if it's a health issue, because Cueto did miss a start in May due to right elbow stiffness. If there's any truth to that, it's not showing up in his velocity, per Statcast™. He averaged 93.4 mph on his four-seamer when he was shutting the Tigers out on August 10, and 93.4 mph when the Orioles were roughing him up last week. On Tuesday, he was routinely hitting 93 -- for example, six of the seven pitches Jose Iglesias saw in the second inning were in the 93-94 mph range.
Nor does it seem that he's changed his spin. Cueto's four-seamer averaged 2,134 RPM in that Tigers shutout, and 2,197 RPM against Baltimore. His other pitches have stayed consistent as well. Finally, it's also not likely an issue trying to get aligned with his new catcher, Salvador Perez, because Perez has caught every one of Cueto's Kansas City starts -- good and bad.
So if it's not any of those things, what it is it? It's bad location, bad luck, and bad timing. Put those things together simultaneously, and the result is… not good.
Let's start with the location. Several times on Tuesday night, Cueto was clearly not hitting the spots that Perez had set up for, which you can clearly see by watching Perez's glove in this pair of stills from Ian Kinsler's fourth-inning RBI single.
Perez wanted the ball on the inside corner, but Cueto let it float over the plate for Kinsler to poke into the outfield and score Iglesias. It was a recurring theme for the evening, as Cueto struggled to find his spots and allowed nine hits in six innings.
There's also the question of where those batted balls are going, because Cueto was actually allowing less contact in his two most recent "bad" starts (79.0 percent) than he was in his four "good" ones (83.3 percent). In Cueto's two previous starts, his Batting Average On Balls In Play was .447, which is to say that nearly half of the batted balls he allowed fell in for hits. (It was .267 in his first four Kansas City starts, and .237 with the Reds.) On Tuesday, nearly 40 percent of the balls in play went for hits.
As you'd expect, a big part of that is simply that Cueto was leaving the ball over the plate so that it could get pounded; in his first four Royals starts, he was allowing an exit velocity of 83.29 mph, and in the games against Boston and Baltimore it was 91.14 mph. On Tuesday night, it was a combination of both, as Tyler Collins, Anthony Gose, and Miguel Cabrera (twice) all had hits over 98 mph, but the Tigers also found some good luck with four well-placed hits that all came off the bat at under 83 mph.
Ultimately, this stands out as an elite pitcher in need of minor adjustments rather than a major concern, and wondering if those adjustments are a little harder to get to due to the fact that he's working for the first time with a new coaching staff and catcher who are still getting to know their new star. Cueto's trademark control hasn't left him, as he's walked just five in 47 innings as a Royal. His velocity hasn't changed, and his pitch mixture hasn't changed much -- he's used the trio of his fastball, sinker, and cutter consistently around 70 percent of the time this year.
What it shows is that even the best pitchers are a collection of moving parts, where the slightest inconsistency can throw the entire machine off. We've seen Cueto make the necessary adjustments before, anyway. Remember those three straight starts of three or more runs we talked about? That came in early September, 2012. He finished the season with three earned runs allowed in 20 innings. Fortunately for both Cueto and the Royals, the pennant race is over. There's more than a month to work this out before it matters. He did, at least, retire the last seven Tigers in a row on Tuesday.