What we talk about when we talk about Johnny Cueto: Ace for hire, Luis Tiant redux, a monster payday ahead this winter, the upcoming opportunity to shine on the big postseason stage and prove he deserves recognition as one of the best in the game.
When the Kansas City Royals acquired Cueto to front their rotation, it looked like the perfect acquisition for the best team in the American League, a reminder of when the Blue Jays traded for David Cone in 1992 or the Rangers getting Cliff Lee in 2010. The early returns indicated the Royals had their No. 1 starter: two solid outings, then a nine-inning shutout in his home debut before a raucous crowd of pumped-up fans followed by eight innings and one run after that. But then ... well, here are his last three starts:
6 IP, 13 H, 7 R, 0 BB, 3 SO
5 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 1 BB, 8 SO
6 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 0 BB, 2 SO
That's 17 runs and 30 hits allowed in 17 innings, for an opponents' batting average of .380. The third of those outings was Tuesday's 6-5 loss to the Tigers, dropping Cueto's record with the Royals to 2-4 with a 4.21 ERA.
Has it been bad luck? Bad pitching? Before we get into that, it's worth noting that Cueto's worst three-game span with the Cincinnati Reds this season was 11 runs in 21.1 innings. In 2014, it was 12 runs in 18 innings (including an eight-run outing). In 2013, he allowed more than three runs just once in 11 starts. In 2012, he did allow 14 runs and 26 hits in 15.1 innings in a three-start stretch in September.
So, at least he has gone through something similar. He righted the ship that year to allow five runs over his final three starts and start Game 1 of the Division Series, which he had to leave in the first inning with a strained oblique.
These two sets of stats may also get Royals fans a little nervous:
With Reds: .196/.250/.327, 23.3% K rate, 5.6% BB rate
With Royals: .289/.314/.464, 17.4% K rate, 2.6% BB rate
The batting line is obviously worse with Kansas City but it's the lower strikeout rate that jumps out. Is this simply the result of moving to the American League? Let's look at these last three starts.
August 21 versus Red Sox
The 13 hits, with video review:
1. Mookie Betts double to right center: soft liner, actually. Pretty good pitch on the corner; Betts poked it over second base.
4. Blake Swihart line-drive double to left field off a high-cut fastball. Pitch was up and out of the strike zone.
5. Josh Rutledge kind of a seeing-eye single into left field on a 2-1 fastball.
6. Betts, single on a hard liner to left. First, it was a bad cutter middle of the plate. But the ball also glanced off Paulo Orlando's glove. So bad pitch, hit hard, but should have been an error.
7. Castillo triple over Cain's head on a 2-1 slider on the outside corner. Pretty good pitch but Castillo hit it hard. Cain could have caught this one as well -- it was the kind of play he was making routinely early in the season. Still, note that Cueto was falling behind a lot of hitters.
8. Swihart, soft blooper to left-center off a 1-0 cutter.
9. Betts with another blooper to right center that Cain misses catching by a step. Off a 3-2 cutter up in the zone, however.
10. Xander Bogaerts, hard grounder up the middle off a first-pitch fastball.
11. Swihart, kind of a medium-hard liner to right off a 1-1 changeup that was up just a bit.
12. Rutledge, home run over the Monster off a bad 0-1 cutter down the middle.
13. Pablo Sandoval, ground-ball double chopped into the left-field corner, off another cutter. Not hit hard but the third baseman was way off the line.
OK, definitely a fair share of soft hits in this game, but the cutter certainly wasn't fooling anyone, and Cueto did get into trouble falling behind hitters where he had to come in with the fastball or cutter.
August 26 versus Orioles
Cueto gave up three home runs in this outing, so let's look at those:
--Manny Machado off an 0-0, 89-mph cutter up in the zone.
--Jonathan Schoop off a 1-2, 90-mph cutter. This pitch was down and in, but I guess that's Schoop's wheelhouse because he crushed it.
--Chris Davis off 3-2, 87-mph cutter, down and away. I think we're seeing the problem here -- the cutter isn't getting the job done.
September 1 versus Tigers
I didn't watch this game and didn't check all the highlights, but seven of the nine hits came off cutters or fastballs, including four hits on 3-2 counts and six hits with two strikes. That gets back to that strikeout rate; Cueto hasn't been able to put hitters away, and maybe that is a function of the deeper lineups in the AL.
Or, maybe more simply, it's just a momentary lapse of movement on that cutter. Here are the numbers with that pitch before and after the trade:
Reds: .241/.275/.356, 25.3% K rate
Royals: .343/.363/.743, 11.1% K rate
Cueto has actually been throwing his cutter about 4 percent more often with the Royals, even though it's been getting hit. Remember, the cutter isn't necessarily a big strikeout pitch, but one that induces weak contact. Cueto's 25 percent strikeout rate with it while with the Reds is actually pretty high, a testament to how he usually gets a lot of sharp action on it. That certainly hasn't been present with the cutters on most of these hits.
Overall, I'm guessing it's just a minor mishap, some bad pitches that hitters didn't miss. Luckily for Cueto and the Royals, he has got all of September to fix things and get ready for that first start in the playoffs.