Johnny Cueto Flips the Switch

For the first time in more than two months, the Royals again saw the capital-J Johnny Cueto for whom they traded at the deadline, the capital-A Ace they needed to front their rotation following the departure of James Shields on their journey towards a second consecutive World Series appearance – this time with the hopes of capturing that final, elusive victory.

Cueto, when healthy, has been among the most consistently effective pitchers in baseball for the past half-decade. Though you can’t count on what his delivery may look like on any given pitch, you could always count on an ERA that began with a 2, which is precisely what the Royals acquired when they shipped Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed to Cincinnati for the 29-year-old Dominican hurler in late July.

The guy they wanted was exactly the guy they got, until he wasn’t. After three initial Cueto-like performances in Royal blue, he gave up six earned runs to Boston. Then six to Baltimore, and four to Detroit, and five to the White Sox, and seven more to Baltimore.

Thoughts were, maybe Cueto was hurt. Or he was tipping his pitches. Or his catcher wasn’t setting up low enough in the zone. Or he was just running into some bad luck.

Fact is, no one outside the organization knew quite what was happening to Cueto. But that all feels like a distant memory after he shoved against the Astros on Wednesday night, allowing just two baserunners and striking out eight in eight dominant innings to clinch an ALCS berth.

Cueto’s average fastball, typically, sits around 93 mph. During the height of his struggles in Kansas City, it had dipped to 92. There were others factors to Cueto’s slump, certainly, but there’s usually a correlation between a drop in velocity and a drop in performance, and Cueto suffered both. Three weeks ago, Cueto’s average fastball dropped to 91. Two weeks ago, just in time for the playoffs, it had fallen to 90.

During Wednesday’s start against Houston, facing elimination, Cueto’s fastball sat at 93, touching 96. He came out throwing hard, and held it throughout the game. There wasn’t an obvious move on the rubber. His release point doesn’t appear to have changed. Just like Cueto’s early Kansas City struggles, there didn’t appear to be a clear explanation. So I went back and watched some film from the Twins game, when Cueto sat 90, and I rewatched some film from last night. Before we get into things, I’d like to just show you some first-inning fastballs.

At 87, to the leadoff hitter, two weeks ago:

CuetoRS1

A two-seamer, at 86, to the next batter:

CuetoRS2

A four-seamer, at 89, to that same batter:

CuetoRS3

That was Cueto a couple weeks ago, throwing fastballs during a first inning in which he never touched 90. Now, fast-forward to last night. Three more fastballs, all from the first inning, all to George Springer. Pay attention to Cueto’s body, moreso than the pitch.

A four-seamer, at 93:

CuetoPS1

A two-seamer, at 94:

CuetoPS2

A two-seamer, at 94:

CuetoPS3

Maybe I’m just seeing things, but the difference, to me, about jumped out of the screen. I’d prefer not to use the word “effort,” so instead, we’ll go with “conviction.” That’s a word pitching coaches like to use, so let’s use that. Another way of looking at this could be still images of Cueto’s follow-through, 10 frames after his release point:

CuetoRelease

Cueto, last night, came out of the gates pitching with conviction. Cueto, during his struggles near the end of the season, didn’t appear, at least to the naked eye, to be pitching with conviction. That was my gut feeling as I began this last night. Then this morning, I read Jeff Passan’s column at Yahoo! Sports, which contained this nugget:

“…Cueto vowed, he was going to throw as hard as he could from the first pitch. No more first-inning procrastination, starting with fastballs at 91 and 89 and 90 and 91 and 90 miles per hour, like he had his last five starts. The Astros were going to see why the Royals traded for him. The Royals were going to see why they traded for him.”

Now, I’m not at all comfortable venturing a guess as to why Cueto may not have been pitching with conviction out of the gates in the regular season. I’m barely comfortable writing this post as it is. But the numbers back it up, the visuals back it up, and Passan’s column backs it up, so it’s there.

From August 21 to October 4, a nine-start stretch in which Cueto posted a 6.49 ERA for the Royals, his average fastball velocity, the first time through the order, was 91. The second time through the order, it was 92. By his third time through, he’d ramped it up to his normal speed of 93, so it’s not like Cueto had lost the ability to throw 93, he just hadn’t shown the ability to do so in the early innings. By the time he’d gotten to 93, he was often already trailing, or he’d been removed from the game before he’d allowed himself the opportunity to get there.

Last night, Cueto’s average first-inning fastball was 93. His second-inning fastball was 93. In the third, 94. In the fourth, 94. Cueto ensured that the Astros weren’t able to jump on him early, and held his dominance over the course of eight innings.

Beyond the fact that throwing harder is better, and pitching with conviction is better, there’s a potential residual effect that stuck out to me in this, as well. Yesterday, I wrote about how Clayton Kershaw dramatically changed his approach in his second start against the Mets, throwing a career-high number of sliders in Game 1 before ditching that strategy in Game 4. My idea, there, was that Kershaw could prevent the Mets from timing him up in his second start by giving them a wildly different look in the first.

This is the part where I point out that Cueto threw the Astros a season-low number of changeups in Game 1. Last night, he threw a similarly-low rate his first time through the order, while he hammered away with his revitalized fastball. Once he’d gotten the Astros geared up for 94 early, he returned to vintage-Cueto, throwing his lethal changeup late in counts with success. Three of Cueto’s eight strikeouts came on the changeup, and he used it to get four of his final six outs.

It got Springer for a swinging strikeout to end the third:

CuetoK1

It got Chris Carter swinging to end the fifth, the 10th consecutive batter he’d sat down:

CuetoK2

Colby Rasmus, swinging, in the seventh, for 15 in a row:

CuetoK3

Cueto established his fastball in the early, something he’d lately been unable to do, and it set up his changeup for the later innings. Of course, there was more to Cueto’s success last night than just throwing his fastball harder. There’s more pitching than just “conviction.” But, in the big picture, it kind of seems like Cueto decided to just come out and be better, as ridiculous as that sounds. Like he just flipped the proverbial switch.

It’s never that easy — if a guy could flip a switch and throw eight dominant innings every time, baseball wouldn’t be any fun. But Johnny Cueto looked like he flipped a switch last night, and turned back into the guy the Royals traded for. And if all it takes for Cueto to be that guy is to flip a switch, his regular-season struggles will quickly become a thing of the past.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Pale Hose
6 years ago

Wait, there was another game last night?