Sunday night, after the Orioles pounded Johnny Cueto for eight runs and four home runs, I asked on Twitter: If the playoffs started tomorrow, would you include Cueto in the rotation for the Kansas City Royals? After all, over his past five starts, Cueto is 0-5 with a 9.57 ERA, 48 hits in 26.1 innings, eight home runs allowed and a .390 opponents' batting average.
The answers ranged from "No" to "Welcome to the American League" to "Yes, that's what we got him for" to "You're the worst sports writer of all time."
As Buster Olney wrote before Sunday's start, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland held a video meeting with Cueto after his previous outing and concluded that he was flying open -- his left shoulder turning too soon in his delivery -- and that was causing his pitches to flatten out, especially his cutter. Olney also wrote that "Eiland sees an accomplished pitcher going through a crisis of confidence." Which, OK, it seems a little odd that one of the best pitchers in the game would suddenly go through a crisis of confidence, especially considering that in his first three starts with the Royals, he allowed two runs in seven innings, threw a complete game shutout and allowed one run in eight innings.
Anyway, the video session didn't create an immediate fix. While Cueto's cutter had been getting roughed up, none of the four home runs on Sunday was off a cutter: An 0-1 fastball to Adam Jones, two 1-0 sliders to Jonathan Schoop, and an 0-1 changeup to Chris Davis. When the Orioles hit three home runs off him on Aug. 26, all three came on cutters, so maybe they were expecting Cueto to go away from that pitch.
Over at the Royals Review site, Ryan Landreth writes,
Don't kid yourself: Johnny Cueto is one of the best pitchers in baseball. The stats back it up. Dayton Moore did what he had to do. The poor results thus far do not necessarily mean the rationale behind the trade was bad. The Royals' starting rotation was one of the worst in the American League, so Moore went out and brought in the best starting pitcher on the trade market.
Since firing a shutout in his home debut in what seems like years ago, he has been a complete disaster. In the past month, he has more no-shows at fan appearances than he has victories. He's asking to be pushed back in his starts. He can't strike anybody out. His velocity is fine, but he's getting BABIP'd to freaking death.
I like Cueto. I really do. At this point, I still want him starting Game 1 of any playoff series over any other Royals starter. At least I think I do, and I would bet a lot of money that Ned Yost does, too.
Indeed, after the game Sunday, Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star wrote, "Asked if he was considering shifting his playoff rotation, which was presumed to use Cueto as the No. 1 starter, manager Ned Yost said, 'Not right now. It may, if this continues.'"
How much of Cueto's struggles are bad luck, and how much of it is bad pitching? Certainly, some of it has been bad luck. In these five outings, he's allowed a .409 average on pitches out of the strike zone; 18 of the 48 hits he's allowed weren't strikes. That's crazy stuff. Hitters have a .515 BABIP in this stretch. Before these five starts he'd allowed a .129 average on pitches out of the zone -- just 27 hits over his first 23 starts.
On the other hand, giving up four home runs isn't bad luck. Opponents are hitting .380 and slugging .684 on pitches in the strike zone. Before this slump, those figures were .241 and .413.
Cueto still has time to straighten himself out before the playoffs begin, so Yost doesn't have to make that decision just yet. But consider a recent study that Bill James published at billjamesonline.com. A reader had asked, "If you were choosing a pitcher to start a critical game, say a one-game playoff or Game 7 of a series, would you be more likely to choose the pitcher on your team who has the highest pitcher score or the pitcher who has pitched best over the past four or five starts?"
This is the Cueto question, right? If the playoffs started today, at least.
James looked at whether recent performance is an indicator of what will happen in a pitcher's next start. His conclusion? "Comparing 1,000 pitchers in each group, the pitchers who had pitched poorly in their last five starts but had pitched well over their last 30 starts had a winning percentage in their next start of .538, and an ERA of 3.40. The pitchers in the opposite group had a winning percentage of .438, and an ERA of 4.70."
So, you start Cueto.
Even with that ugly 9.57 ERA over his past five outings.