Kansas City Royals Starting Pitcher Johnny Cueto

The Kansas City Royals, who lost last year’s World Series, were in need of a frontline starter to anchor their starting staff to compete for another World Series berth. Ian York takes a look at the Royals’ newly acquired Johnny Cueto to see what Kansas City will get from their new ace.

The Kansas City Royals and the Cincinnati Reds, during their negotiations over ace Johnny Cueto, must have both felt anxious when Cueto had back-to-back weak performances on July 12 and 19. On the 12th, Cueto gave up five runs (three earned) in a five-inning outing. On the 19th, he pitched his shortest game of the year, only giving up two runs in four innings but walking no less than six – double his previous high for the year. Cueto bounced back on July 25, pitching eight strong innings (four hits, one walk and no runs) against Colorado, and the trade to the Royals was announced on the 26th. Cueto’s three most recent games are worth a look, if only because they illustrate some of his strengths.

Cueto throws three different fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, and cutter), a changeup, a slider and a rare curveball primarily to left-handed batters. He has a remarkably balanced attack; even his four-seams are thrown well under 50% of the time, and his two-seam, change, and cutter are used almost equally:

Cueto Trade IMG 1

His two- and four-seam fastballs are thrown at similar speeds, but the two-seam breaks significantly more. PITCHf/x confidently labels pitches as “FT” or “FF” for two- or four-seam, and in Cueto’s case many of the pitches clearly do fall into different clusters, but there are a number of pitches with intermediate break that could be either pitch type, so the precise percentages are fuzzy:

Cueto Trade IMG 2

Aside from a lower number of two-seam fastballs than usual on his 7/19/15 start, there’s little difference in pitch usage between those starts. What about pitch quality? In the case of fastballs, we can look at velocity:

Cueto Trade IMG 3 

Cueto’s 7/12/15 start featured his second-lowest four-seam velocity of the year,1.3-mph lower than his previous start and 2.5-mph slower than the average of his fastest start. The four-seam recovered somewhat on his next start (7/19), although his two-seam was the second-slowest of his season.

The average velocity on the 19th is a little deceptive, because he started out that game with a fairly slow fastball, not returning to his more typical speeds until the 3rd and 4th innings:

Cueto Trade IMG 4

Comparing the location and outcomes of his pitches from the 19th (when he walked six batters in four innings) to his July 25th start (eight innings, one walk, no runs), we can see that his balls were mainly fastballs above the zone:

Cueto Trade IMG 5

Cueto Trade IMG 6

Even though he was having a hard time finding the zone on the 19th, he still left a Cueto-like “doughnut” in the strike zone – as few pitches were down the middle and many were near the edges. On his July 25th start, though he was still throwing some pitches above the zone, even those were close to the top of the strike zone, and he was successfully attacking the zone while still leaving a nice doughnut – especially to left-handed batters.

If Cueto’s reduced velocity had persisted longer than a game and a half, there would certainly be concern about injury. But instead, he regained his velocity through his next game. Possibly the variation in velocity throughout that game made it hard for him to precisely locate his pitches, leading to the increase in walks. In his most recent game, with consistent velocity, he was able to place his pitches well, and returned to his usual success.

Ian York has written about rookie struggles, an impressive start by Eduardo Rodriguez, Mike Napoli and the effect the strike zone is having on him, and the effect of better bullpens on offensive strategy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

Check out Ian’s look at Rick Porcello’s fastballs.

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