KC Royals: Could Johnny Cueto Be Cracking Under Contract Pressure?


KC Royals ace Johnny Cueto recent troubles are all over the media. He has a 9.45 ERA in four straight losses. According to Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger, who looked up Cueto’s Bill James game scores, it’s the worst four game stretch of his seven-year career.

Kansas City Star blogger Lee Judge believes Cueto’s trouble stems from a mechanical failure. Fangraphs.com analyst Jeff Sullivan thinks Johnny Cueto is suffering from a protracted case of “shit  happens” after noticing he was giving up a .425 batting average on pitches out of the strike zone. While Sam Mellinger contends the key to Cueto’s problem is falling behind in counts. ESPN’s Christina Kahrl considers his problems serious enough to contemplate alternatives if they force the Kansas City Royals to compete in the playoffs without him.

What everyone else has failed to mention is that Johnny Cueto’s struggles started the same day Boston Globe reporter Rob Bradford asked the KC Royals rental ace if he would consider signing with the Red Sox during the winter.

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The difference since that day has been stark. Johnny Cueto dominated in his first four KC Royals starts, giving up six runs in 30.0 innings pitched with 21 strikeouts (1.80 ERA). In the four starts after he commented that he’d like to pitch for the Red Sox next season, Cueto has given up 21 runs in only 20.0 innings.

Of course, analysts from both the “hard” and “social” sciences will tell you that, “Correlation without a causation means nothing.” But, in this case, I think there’s a rational causative link between the questions Johnny Cueto faced in Boston and his subsequent poor performance.

Lee Judge reported that KC Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland is working with Johnny Cueto to keep his “front shoulder from flying out in front“. Eiland says that mechanical flaw “flattens out” Cueto’s cutter, and causes him to leave both his fastball and change-up high in the strike zone.

ALSO SEE: Time To Panic About Johnny Cueto

I once had a similar problem during my own (rather humble) competitive Judo career, when trying to deal with a faster opponent. Now, Judo and pitching a baseball are wildly different sports. But, both involve some pretty intricate body rotation. Your lead shoulder, which for a pitcher is his non-throwing side, “flies out in front” when you’re anxious and want to get into your techniques quicker than you’re really able. You’re trying to use momentum from your shoulders to pull your body around faster.

Pitchers do that kind of thing when they’re amped up. Johnny Cueto’s Pitch F/X data supports this notion by showing the velocity on all of his pitches in the last four games is up a tick compared to his season averages, but nothing is significantly out of line.

On ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, Tim Kurkjian insisted that Cueto starting off Sunday’s game with a 79 mph change up, followed by a fastball under 90 means he’s injured. But, since all of his average pitch velocities on Sunday ended up in range with his other games this season, Johnny Cueto could have been a guy thinking about slowing down his body rotation rather than fighting an injury. 

Anyone who has watched even a little bit of Johnny Cueto’s career knows that he depends on a lot of variations in his pitching motion to throw off a hitter’s timing. Maintaining any kind of consistency while incorporating such wild gyrations is absurdly difficult, which is why few major-league pitchers attempt to emulate Cueto’s tactics.

Putting together all of this information makes me wonder if Boston Globe reporter Rob Bradford shook up Johnny Cueto’s delicate balance by reminding him that general managers across baseball are watching him down the stretch. Cueto could command a deal worth over $200 million this winter. Thinking about that could throw ANYONE off.

And, once out of sync, Johnny Cueto’s has been pressing to get back to normal.

In a way, I’m glad this is happening now. Johnny Cueto has five or six starts to work out his issues before he’s expected to take the mound in the playoffs for the Kansas City Royals.

KC Royals fans just hope they aren’t cringing in dread when that day comes.

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