Four errant pitches don’t tell us much about Cueto

It’s indisputable, I think, that we often attribute great meaning to situations that have not earned that meaning. In baseball, I’m happy to report, we’re getting better, with the use of the phrase “small sample size” increasing on the broadcast airwaves approximately 100 percent in just the last five-some years. Which brings me to Johnny Cueto…

The numbers are terribly dramatic or dramatically terrible, depending on your rooting interests.

In Cueto’s first four starts upon joining the Royals—upon becoming their de facto ace—at the end of July, he pitched brilliantly: 30 innings, 1.80 ERA, and just one home run allowed; the highlight was a four-hit shutout against the Tigers.

In his five starts since then, Cueto’s 0-5 with a 9.57 ERA, giving up eight homers in 26 innings. Before Sunday night, things were not going well. Sunday night, Cueto gave up four home runs.

Which has led, understandably enough, to concern, well-detailed here by Andy McCullough.

Before attempting my two-time-zones-away sort of analysis, I do want to mention this snapshot:

During the week, pitching coach Dave Eiland counseled Cueto on adjustments to both his delivery and his mentality. Eiland suggested Cueto lost confidence in the wake of his struggles, which caused him to attempt to manipulate the movement of the baseball with excessive movement in his delivery.

The unnecessary exertion wrought several unfortunate consequences. Cueto lost command of his fastball. His offspeed pitches hung over the plate. In addition, Cueto may have been tipping his hand to opposing hitters by exposing the baseball early in his delivery.

As the hitters teed off, Cueto allowed his shoulders to slump and his pace on the mound to slacken. Eiland showed him a split-screen with video from his first four starts as a Royal, when he allowed six runs in 30 innings, and his last four outings. To Eiland, the difference in body language was stark.

“I froze a picture of him in his last game, and he had this glazed-over look in his eye,” Eiland said. “Then I showed him on the mound (in a shutout) against Detroit. He had this look in his eye that was just different, and that comes with confidence.”

From a distance, this seems like your classic ex post facto analysis. At best.

My wife recently clicked a bunch of photos of me and the baby, and in one of them my left eyeball looked like it was coming out of its socket. My left eyeball was, in fact, not coming out of its socket. I’ll bet if you freeze-framed every second of Clayton Kershaw’s last start, there are at least a dozen milliseconds when he looks sad, or insecure, or like anything except the best pitcher in America.

It’s human nature to see things we expect to see, and when a pitcher’s getting hit hard, we expect to see explanations. Even explanations that don’t really explain much.

One odd thing about Cueto’s pitching in recent weeks: the range of speeds on his fastball seems to have gotten significantly smaller. Prior to his last seven starts, his fastballs in a game typically ranged from 87 to 96 miles an hour. In his last seven starts, though? Cueto hasn’t thrown a single fastball slower than 91. His two-seam fastball and his change-up are his second and third pitches, and those also have shown less variance lately.

Which might suggest that he’s a little too amped up, and is simply overthrowing. I’m not sure it does us any good to wonder why he might be overthrowing, and I’m not sure any of Cueto’s coaches are qualified to do much wondering. If he’s overthrowing, probably the best a coach or catcher can do is say, “Hey, it seems like maybe you’re overthrowing. How about backing off some tonight?”

No, it’s not that simple. But if you have to choose between an injury and (maybe) an attitude adjustment, won’t you choose the latter every time?

It’s also worth mentioning that Cueto’s strikeout-to-walk ratio since joining the Royals is better than anything he’d ever done before, over a full season. You might argue that all those strikes have come with a cost: more home runs. Well, sure. But eight home runs in 26 innings is about five “extra” home runs. This is not an insignificant number … but it’s not wildly significant, either. Five home runs is five pitches, most of which were probably fat. But not all. So let’s assume that four of those home runs were “deserved.” Should we assume that four errant pitches tell us something important about Johnny Cueto’s performance?

I’m not sure about that, at all.

Some years ago, Paul DePodesta introduced me to the concept of “derivatives” in baseball. Instead of counting every single the same way, we should give a hitter more credit for a line drive up the middle than for a swinging bunt. Similarly, we should give a hitter about as much credit for a line drive caught by the shortstop as for that line-drive single up the middle.

Well, you could do the same thing with individual pitches and I’m sure someone’s doing it.  If you’re the Royals, what you really want to know isn’t how many home runs Johnny Cueto’s given up, or even what sort of faces he’s making when he’s just given up a home run, but rather what sort of pitches he’s been throwing.

Even if the Royals don’t know these things, or even if they do, Dave Eiland and Ned Yost don’t much care. I still expect Johnny Cueto to pitch effectively next month. He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s been doing this well for a long time. And if something’s wrong, he’s still got a few weeks to figure it out.