Diagnosis: Johnny Cueto by Jeff Sullivan September 2, 2015 The Dodgers lead the Giants by six games in the loss column. That’s a pretty secure lead, with a month left to go. The Mets lead the Nationals by six games in the loss column. Same thing. The Royals lead the Twins by 12 games in the loss column. It’s also the same thing, except twice the amount, so if ever a team could afford to coast, it’s Kansas City. They’re more or less a playoff lock, so while the players can’t exactly look a few weeks ahead, you could forgive the fans for doing so. These games don’t mean very much, and all that’s important is getting everyone right. With that in mind, Johnny Cueto is causing some concern. Let me say that again: these games don’t mean very much. People won’t care if Cueto keeps his struggles isolated to a few weeks in the regular season. But Royals fans want to be sure that Cueto’s going to be okay for the playoffs. That’s why the team got him. He got off to a good-enough start, but lately things have taken a turn for the worse. We’re talking about his last three games. He’s posted an 8.47 ERA, third-worst in baseball over the last two weeks. He’s allowed a .380 average, first-worst in baseball over same. Cueto’s whole game in the past has been limiting hits, so given what’s happened, we might as well investigate, because, what’s the harm? Mostly, I think, people want to know if Cueto’s hurt. He had an elbow issue earlier on, and he’s no stranger to the occasional ache and/or pain. Nothing here can conclusively say whether Cueto’s structurally sound. The only true tests are performed on Cueto’s actual body. What can be seen from here is that Cueto’s velocity is basically fine. His movements are basically fine. His release points are basically fine. The normal indicators aren’t present, and while that doesn’t rule out some sort of injury, it reduces the likelihood. I don’t think that Cueto is hurting. But here’s what we have. Let’s focus on average allowed, because, as silly as batting average can be, it can still tell a story, especially for a pitcher who’s previously specialized in hit prevention. A rolling-average plot for Cueto’s career, taking things in three-start chunks: Clearly, this isn’t something that’s never happened. Cueto’s had sharp spikes before, as you’d expect. But it has been a little while, and, from another perspective, Cueto’s allowed at least a .300 average in three consecutive games. That hasn’t happened since 2009. This goes a little beyond normal fluctuation, which is why some people are a little more worried. It’d be one thing to see 20 hits over three games. It’s something else to see 30. Yet, I’ve prepared for you a quiz, with the help of Baseball Savant. I think the consensus is that early with the Royals Cueto was good, and more recently he’s been bad. Below are two images, showing Cueto’s pitch locations in his first four Royal starts, and the locations in his last three Royal starts. Which is which? There’s a poll! Image A Image B Take Our Poll I’m not going to give you the answer here. Sort that out for yourself. I think they look pretty similar. If you don’t, you’re either lying, or you’re amazing. Seems to me, it’s not like Cueto has fallen into this nasty habit of grooving everything. Nor is he throwing too many balls, forcing him over the plate in hitter-friendly situations. You want to see something ridiculous? I’ll show you something ridiculous. First, the less-ridiculous: Cueto’s batting average allowed on pitches in the strike zone. With Reds: .256 Early Royals: .265 Recent Royals: .333 Okay, a little bit of inflation. Now, his batting average allowed on pitches out of the strike zone: With Reds: .123 Early Royals: .186 Recent Royals: .425 It’s nuts. It’s a small sample, of course, but anything over three starts is a small sample, and this one catches the eye. Cueto has been getting swings at balls. But a lot of those swings have resulted in base hits, and while, sure, some of that could be flat pitches, or bad sequencing, you have to figure luck plays a huge role. Batters generally don’t want to go out of the zone. Pitchers generally want batters to go out of the zone. Cueto has gotten batters to do that. They’ve come up with hits anyway. More than they’ve come up with hits within the zone. You’re free to try to blame the pitches. I put it on the hitters, and I put it on luck. Why so many instances where you’re tempted to say “that’s just a piece of good hitting”? Here’s a partial explanation. With the Reds, Cueto faced opponents with an average 95 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. In his first four starts with the Royals, he faced opponents with an average 95 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. In his last three starts with the Royals, he faced opponents with an average 105 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. The enemy has gotten stronger, so you just expect batter at-bats, and some worse results for the guy on the mound. Again, doesn’t explain everything, but explains some things. The other day, I noted about Mike Trout that no one’s immune to the penalty of facing better opponents. Here, we meet that point again. There’s no single one thing. Absolutely, Cueto has missed some spots. Maybe a little more often than he used to. But it’s not like he’s walking anybody, and he’s always missed spots, especially if you just watch videos of the hits he’s allowed. His general location plots haven’t meaningfully changed. Lately, Cueto has faced some tougher opponents, which is difficult, and he’s allowed a bunch of hits on what you might consider to be pitchers’ pitches. Over three starts, batters have hit better out of the zone than within it. That’s weird, and that’s unsustainable. This seems like a classic case of “shit happens.” To some extent, Cueto probably misses the National League. He struck pitchers out basically half the time, and those don’t exist to him anymore. The American League is a little bit stronger. But it’s not so good that Cueto can’t cut it. Unless he actually is hurt, in some subtle way, Cueto ought to get right through this. He ought to be the ace the Royals traded for. The last three starts have been nothing to write home about, but then, the Royals didn’t get him for his last three starts. They got him for games that don’t yet exist.