Were Johnny Cueto’s Results Johnny Cueto’s Fault?

So here’s something weird. I’ve noticed on Twitter that when Blue Jays fans refer to last night’s ALCS Game Three, they seem to give the credit to the Jays. They say things like, “The Jays were crushing the ball.” But when Royals fans talk about the game, they do it in a Royals-centric context, taking credit away from the Royals, as in, “Cueto sucked.” This isn’t to knock on either fan base. We all do this. I sure do. The truth though, as is often the case, lies in the middle somewhere. The Royals, Cueto especially, pitched badly. The Blue Jays, Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Goins especially, hit well. But, when parcelling out the blame and/or credit, one can’t be binary about it. Unlike pooping the bed, it’s not an all or nothing thing.

Cueto ended up with a final line of two innings pitched and eight runs allowed. To my eye he struggled, and I doubt your eye would say much different, but based solely on his stuff I wouldn’t have guessed he was eight-runs-in-two-innings bad. Partially because that’s reeeeeeally bad (that’s an ERA of 36.00!), but partially because he just didn’t appear all that awful. So maybe more of the credit/blame for the outcome should fall on the Blue Jays. But then again, I’m not a scout, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.* I was curious to see if I could figure out who should get the credit and how much.


The big inning was the third, wherein the Blue Jays ended up scoring six runs. The big blow that inning was — well, actually there were a few of them, which sort of tells you about the inning — but Cueto was ineffective enough to be out of the game by the time the second big one to the chops was issued. The first was Troy Tulowitzki’s three run homer after Cueto gave up a two-strike single and then a four-pitch walk. The inning before Cueto had given up three runs to the Jays, who went single, hit-by-pitch, ground out, single, walk, single. That’s hardly getting torched, but it was an oddly Royals-like inning in its effectiveness. Anyway, at least by Leverage Index, the two big hits for the Blue Jays were Goins’ single in the second and Tulowitzki’s homer in the third. Let’s take a look at the pitches that provides us with those outcomes. Where they bad pitches, in which case Cueto should get the blame? Where they good pitches but hit well?

I don’t have a GIF machine and Carson Cistulli is almost assuredly asleep as I type these words*, but that’s okay because, for this, a screenshot should do the trick. Cueto filled the count, but just before doing that, he threw this pitch.

*[Editor’s Note: Yes. I was very asleep.]

Cueto Goins pitch before

That’s a pretty good 2-2 pitch. Not a strike, but worse pitches have been called strikes than that. Just to highlight the luck component. Anyway, that set up the next pitch to Goins, which was an 85 mph slider.

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That appears to be at the knees and over the outer third of the plate to me, but just to be sure, here’s where the pitch was plotted by Brooks Baseball.


The one Goins hit is Number 9, the light blue in the bottom left. Turns out my screenshot is misleading! The pitch was actually lower and further outside than the screenshot suggests. It was just at (or very slightly off) the corner. Goins went with the pitch and lined it into left field and two runs scored. According to Baseball Savant, Cueto has given up more hits in that zone (down and away) to lefties than in any other zone. Of course, he’s also thrown more pitches to lefties in that zone than he has in any other, so there is that, too.

So how does the league hit sliders in that location between the speeds of 82 and 88 mph? The league has an ISO of .052 on them. That’s kinda terrible. Of course, just looking at that one pitch and its result gives us a static piece of information that misses pitch context, pitch quality, the angle, the exact speed, and on and on. Still. Against sliders in that zone between those speeds, the league has a slugging percentage of .188. That’s yucky! That indicates Cueto allowed a hit, but that, at least in this instance, he maybe didn’t make as bad a pitch as we might have thought. It seems this one was a good pitch and it just got hit.

Of course, that only tells the Cueto half of the story. Goins is the other half. Is he particularly good at hitting low and outside pitches? How about low and outside sliders from right-handed pitchers? As it turns out, that low and away zone is the second-easiest place to get Goins to whiff, the first being low and in. However, it’s not sliders that get him there but changeups and fastballs. Sliders are a distant third. What’s more, Goins has more hits in that zone than in any other including the middle zone over the plate, and the second-most hit pitch in that zone is the slider.

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The pitch undoubtedly wasn’t Cueto’s best, but it wasn’t his worst, either. It played into Goins’ strength in terms of location, but maybe not in terms of break, which was unfortunate for Cueto because location is more of what that pitch had going for it. Still, a case of bad pitching by Cueto maybe isn’t so much bad pitching as good hitting by Goins.

If you’re looking for good pitches or even better pitches, probably don’t need to read any further because now is when we start to discuss the pitches Cueto threw to Troy Tulowitzki. Unlike the at-bat with Goins, this one was short, just two pitches. Mercifully. The first pitch was an 88 mph cutter, so a different pitch than the 93 mph fastball Tulo hit to the North Pole, but look where it was.

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The camera didn’t show us where Salvador Perez put his glove, but it almost assuredly wasn’t there. We don’t throw cutters above the belt and out over the plate, says your dad shaking his head. Also: foreshadowing! Here’s the next pitch, the one Tulowitzki hit out.

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It looks like the location of the first pitch, which I forgot to mention Tulowitzki fouled back, was worse. This second pitch was up, but it was way up, like above the strike zone up. That’s often a pitch a hitter will pop up or miss altogether. Also it was a fastball, so it would have been more difficult for a batter to get around on a high pitch than the slower cutter that Tulo just missed. Here’s where Brooks had the pitch.


The one in question is the light blue one, so yep. Up, over the middle of the plate, but up. This puts us in a bit of a bind, though, in regards to figuring out how the league does on such pitches because the fine folks at Baseball Savant have put the area around the plate from nine o’clock to 12 o’clock all into one zone (see the zone image above). Still, we’ll do our best and see what we can find.

It turns out, on pitches in that upper left quadrant outside the zone, this season the league has slugged .294. That indicates this was a pretty tough pitch to hit, which I sort of buy, but given where the zone is that we’re measuring and where the pitch was that we’re comparing it to, we’re probably picking up a whole lot of noise in our data. So I checked the upper middle zone within the strike zone, the one just below where Tulo’s meatball came in, to see how the league hits pitches there. Those pitches, you’d guess, are going to be easier to hit, and in fact, they are. On 91-95 mph fastballs up but in the strike zone, the league slugs .512.

So it seems that this pitch was either quite hittable or not very hittable at all. Sad face. I’m guessing that splitting the difference isn’t wholly wrong, so putting the league’s slugging somewhere around .400 on a pitch like that, maybe a bit less, isn’t horribly off. Either way, it was, in short, a bad pitch. Just for funsies, remember where the pitch went? Well, here’s where Sal Perez set up.

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Yeesh. Cueto missed his target by about the same distance the pitch traveled after Tulo hit it. It’s kind of funny because they say if you’re going to miss your target, miss badly. You don’t want to aim for the outside corner but leave the pitch three inches further inside, because that’s a recipe for disaster. Here Cueto missed his target by the length and breadth of Cuba, which might look bad, but maybe not be a huge problem normally. In this instance, however, he happened to throw that pitch to a hitter who hits pitches up there for homers, both this year

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and in his career.

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Maybe that’s just bad luck. Hard to say. But we know, in this one instance at least, it sure wasn’t good pitching.

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6 years ago

I wonder how much free agent money he’s cost himself with this whole half-season of bad. It seems like recency effects tend to fade throughout the offseason, but it’s a loaded pitching market and Cueto has some injury history.

Scott Boras
6 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

Cost him money? If anything, this post season has earned him money. The Royals franchise owes Johnny a huge debt of gratitude for his pitching against the Astros.

6 years ago
Reply to  Scott Boras

Lol, good one. Cueto has about as much of a chance of being a Royal next year as you do.

It's a joke
6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

He’s joking, look at his name.