Just the other day, Johnny Cueto turned in his first good start in over a month. Though the Royals have been in position to coast to the playoffs for weeks, seeing Cueto actually get batters out came as a tremendous relief, an indication that the ace is getting back to being an ace with October around the bend. Maybe just as interesting as what Cueto did on the field were conversations that took place off of it. As Andy McCullough wrote, Cueto felt like he needed to express something about Salvador Perez.
Part of his trouble, Cueto explained to the team, was he tries to throw exactly toward the catcher’s glove. Perez often set the target high in the zone, intending to lower his mitt with the pitch. But the optics challenged Cueto, which may have led to him spinning a series of cutters and change-ups at the waist of opposing hitters in recent weeks.
This post will consist of observations, and nothing more. I want to lay that out for you now. Cueto wanted his catcher to behave a little differently behind the plate, and though that’s a difficult thing to actually analyze, it grabbed my attention because it’s an unusual thing to hear. So I’m drawn to trying to explore this. Feel free to explore with me, or alternatively remain in the comforts of home. Explorers frequently die.
The conversation about Perez took place before Cueto’s most recent start. Cueto was understandably hesitant to make requests of an established All-Star backstop, being the new guy and all, but he finally spoke up. That he did so in the first place suggests this is a real thing for him — otherwise, it’s a weird thing to invent. Perez immediately got to work trying to do what Cueto asked. Here’s a clip of Cueto throwing to Perez very shortly after the trade:
Now compare that to the below, of Cueto throwing to Perez in his most recent start:
If the difference isn’t obvious there, it will be in screenshots. Here are a couple pairs. On the left of each, Cueto and Perez from a month and a half ago. On the right of each, Cueto and Perez from a few days ago. The batters are the same batters. Situations are clearly always a little different, but this is still telling.
Above, you see Perez go to a knee. Below, he’s already on a knee — that wasn’t unprecedented. But the glove position is the main difference. Up top, you see a glove roughly level with the knees, then more recently you see it drop more to shin level. Same idea in the second set. Roughly knee level, then roughly hollow-of-knee level. Pitchers don’t always throw right to the target, but Cueto says that’s what he does, so it follows that a lower target might make it easier for Cueto to stay down in the zone. Not to mention there can be pitch-framing benefits if a catcher is already prepared for a pitch around the lower edge.
A low target isn’t always so easy for a catcher. Different catchers have different things come naturally, and there’s evidence to show a relationship between catcher height and pitch-framing hot spots and cold spots. Taller catchers tend to do better a little higher in the zone. Perez is one of the bigger regular catchers in the game, so he has to work at setting an appropriately low target. Cueto’s previous catcher, Brayan Pena, is one of the smaller catchers, meanwhile. That’s interesting on its own, but then it gets confusing when you watch a little video. From time to time, Pena would drop down:
But, I watched a lot of Cueto pitches, and postures like this weren’t uncommon:
Those aren’t particularly low targets. And maybe this isn’t fully representative of how Brayan Pena would catch Johnny Cueto, but from a lot of the highlights I watched, Cueto would throw to targets looking similar to Perez’s old, more elevated targets. It’s not like Brayan Pena was a Jonathan Lucroy clone. This is where I have to back off before I overstate anything. I don’t know what Cueto and Pena would talk about, and I don’t know why Cueto would request a lower target from Perez if it wasn’t something he wanted. There almost has to be something there, and maybe I just wasn’t watching the right clips. It’s just a little peculiar.
As is this, borrowing from Texas Leaguers. Here are Cueto’s pitches from two starts ago:
It was after that start that the Royals and Cueto had the meeting, and Cueto opened up. So you’d expect lower pitches, by and large, from the last game. Here’s where those pitches went:
The pitches actually ended up higher. Some of them, much higher. All but the four-seamer averaged a greater height than Cueto’s overall season mark, and the four-seamer was tied. So after one start, there’s no real evidence that Cueto was better about keeping the ball down. His results, though, improved. This would be one example of Cueto throwing a high pitch when the call was for a low pitch:
When that happens, you think mechanics, and that’s the main explanation the Royals have been going with. When Cueto was having so much trouble, the thought was that he was opening up, and sometimes over-rotating, and that can happen with a pitcher whose deliveries are as varied as Cueto’s. It’s hard to keep all the right timing. Pitchers do slip in and out of their mechanics frequently, if only by a little. Cueto has dealt with having his timing off before. And he continues to insist that he’s healthy. You figure he’ll straighten out, and maybe he’s already begun, with more consistent mechanics and a little bit more luck. It was impossible that slump would continue as it was.
Ultimately we don’t yet know what to make of any of this. The mechanical work hasn’t stopped, but prior to Cueto’s first effective start in a month, he asked for his catcher to catch him a little differently. The catcher obliged, but it’s hard to see what difference that made. It’s hard to see why it wasn’t a problem when Cueto first arrived with the Royals, and it’s hard to identify whether Cueto threw to lower targets with the Reds. But the fact that he specified this means it’s something he was thinking about, which we can’t ever ignore. Cueto himself has been searching for answers. And if you didn’t already know it, being a catcher is unfathomably challenging. Maybe that’s the real takeaway. Salvador Perez made a change on the fly, acting mostly on faith. Seems like the mark of a good teammate, at least.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.