Welcome back, guys. Today’s post is probably going to be pretty short and sweet, I seem to have caught something of a cold and am feeling a little out of it. Regardless of length, I’ll try to make sure this article is as meaningful as possible.
Last night was ALCS Game 3, for those of you stuck under a rock somewhere, and it sure was a damn mess. Coming to a screeching, merciful hault after eight and a half innings, the Blue Jays were winners by a score of 11-8. In a game started by Johnny Cueto and Marcus Stroman, the best pitcher on Monday night in Toronto was Kris Medlen, who turned in five innings of three-hit ball allowing two runs and striking out six. Medlen was forced into the game early after Johnny Cueto surrendered SEVEN earned runs without recording an out in the third inning (Medlen did allow an inherited runner to score in the inning, bringing Cueto’s ER for the night to it’s final resting place of eight). As nicely as Medlen did in saving the KC bullpen for the rest of the series, this article will not be about him; instead, we’ll focus on the less impressive outing that Johnny Cueto turned in.
If you’ve been following the 2015 AL Postseason, you probably know that Johnny Cueto has pitched in three game for the Royals so far. All three games have yielded different results for the KC right-hander: Start #1 was mediocre, Start #2 was phenomenal, and Start #3 was whatever the hell happened on Monday night. I made a tweet earlier today that should shed some light on which one of these outings was the outlier in this situation.
That’s a pretty drastic difference, and it’s easy to see that Johnny Cueto had struggled mightily in the playoffs before last week’s gem against Houston. In his first start since that, he was even worse! Normally I’d be content to just write off last week as a fluke and conclude that Cueto simply doesn’t have the stuff to succeed in the postseason. But now, I’d like to be a little more investigative about this and see why Cueto’s results have been so wildly different from start-to-start this postseason.
Cueto’s pitch usage has been really, really weird this postseason. In his first start against Houston, he threw fastballs almost exclusively, mixing between a four-seamer, a two-seam/sinker (depending on who you ask), and a cutter. In his second start against Houston, he threw mostly two-seam/sinkers (we’re gonna call it a two-seamer from here on out) and mixed in about an equal amount of changeups, sliders and cutters. Then, on Monday night, Cueto threw mostly four-seams and cutters with the occasional sinker. This is the first, and most simple thing we can look at about Cueto that might have some indication as to why he’s been so erratic with his effectiveness. It would seem that Cueto has had more success when he throws more sinkers (does that sound like someone we know?) and mixes in his off-speed pitches more. Why, then, would Cueto go away from this successful formula in the first start after it worked so well? Naturally, we may assume that in the two games Cueto struggled, he was behind in the count more and was therefore not in good situations to use his offspeed pitches. Interestingly enough, Cueto threw more first pitch strikes (22/27, 81.5%) in Statt #1, when he threw a grand total of nine offspeed pitches the entire game. Cueto’s FPS%’s were comparable (61.5% vs. 58.8%) in Starts #2 and #3, but Cueto still used his fastballs far more in Start #3. It would seem that getting ahead in the count doesn’t dictate Cueto’s pitch selection too much. Other than that, we might assume the matchups caused Cueto to plan differently for each game. This would be nice, except Starts #1 and #2 came against the same team, so we know that isn’t the case. From here I decided to look at the effectiveness and placement on his primary pitches, his fastballs. Here are the location breakdowns of Cueto’s two-seams, four-seams, and cutters across the three starts this postseason.
Start #1 – 10/09/15 vs. Houston
Start #2: 10/14/15 vs. Houston
Start #3: 10/19/15 vs. Toronto
Now, that’s a lot of info to take in at once. But to make sense of it, I want to first look at what Cueto did well with these pitches during Start #2. Looking at the graphs (remember, these are from the catcher’s perspective and Cueto is a righty). we see that Cueto generally likes to use his two-seam to pitch to his arm side (in to righties), his cutter to pitch to his glove side (away from righties) and his four-seam is a bit of a wild card. Cueto spotted his two-seam and cutter very well in Start #2, keeping his two-seam out of the middle of the zone and placing it very consistently in on the hands of righty batters and away from. The cutter tended to float a bit towards the heart of the plate, but always stayed on Cueto’s glove side, and he some leeway because of how effective his two-seam was riding that arm-side corner all night. His fastball was usually placed in two spots, on the glove side corner or on his arm side and up. These are two pitches that are tough to hit for a hitter of any handedness, especially when dealing with lots of movement on Cueto’s other fastballs. Using this as a template for Cueto’s success, we can tell what went wrong on the other nights. In Start #1, Cueto’s two-seam was actually pretty good – very consistently on the arm-side of the plate and not often towards the middle. However, his four-seam was all over the place horizontally and often elevated in the zone – something not conducive to success against power-hitting teams like Houston. His cutter was also very inconsistent in placement, missing up and even in to a righty, something we didn’t see much in Start #2. Last night, even Cueto’s two-seam was erratic – misses in the zone, often elevated, were common. His four-seam was either up in the zone or out of it, which (again) isn’t a good sign. Cueto failed to record an out via the four-seam or two-seam on Monday, which certainly is indicative of the two pitches’ overall ineffectiveness. His cutter wasn’t located too well, but was enough of a change in movement to get him four of the six outs he recorded (the other two came on changeups).
The stark contrast between Cueto’s effectiveness last Wednesday and in his other two postseason starts is puzzling, but pretty explainable when looking past the line score. Hopefully For the Royals, Cueto will be able to use his arsenal more effectively and (I think, more importantly) locate his three different fastballs in the certain spots that they need to be here down the stretch (Royals currently lead the ALCS 2-1 and have a 5-2 lead in Game 4). Thanks for reading guys, and don’t forget that NLCS Game 3 is on TBS tonight at 8PM ET! Enjoy the game.