Game 153, Mariners at Royals
James Paxton vs. Johnny Cueto, 5:10pm
We’re under ten games to go in 2015, and the M’s technically haven’t been eliminated yet, which is…no, it’s not much of anything, but I suppose it’s better than the LAST time national experts thought the M’s would be contenders. That year, 2010, was one of the most dispiriting campaigns in M’s history, which is saying something. At the other end of the spectrum, Kansas City can clinch the AL West tonight with a win and a Twins loss. I remember when we used to joke that at least the M’s org wasn’t as bad as the Royals or Pirates. Both of those teams are *returning* to the playoffs this year.
Johnny Cueto’s been a rather disappointing pick-up since the Royals traded for him in late July. In 10 starts, he’s gone 2-6 with an ERA over 5 thanks to a very high BABIP. By FIP, he’s been merely average, which still isn’t quite what Dayton Moore thought he was buying, but it’s reason for hope (of a sort). Cueto’s explanation of what’s gone wrong is, at least in part, that catcher Sal Perez kept his glove too high, and this caused him to elevate pitches. After talking with him about it, he pitched quite well, though as Jeff Sullivan noted, he threw the ball *higher* than he did before. It’s not important if Cueto’s explanation was true or not – if Cueto believed it was affecting him, then he was right to say something. Pitching coach Dave Eiland blamed a mechanical issue with Cueto’s delivery – that his front shoulder was flying open. Both explanations are somewhat hard to evaluate, given that no pitcher always hits a catcher’s target and that Cueto’s twisting delivery means his front shoulder goes flying on every pitch. Whatever the real explanation (and it may just be BABIP luck and stranding runners), I can’t imagine Cueto’s the favorite guy in the clubhouse after pointing the finger at Perez.
Cueto throws a four-seam fastball at around 93 and has a great diving change-up that racks up whiffs and strikeouts. This year, he’s missing just as many bats, but batters have really made him pay for mistakes. When he leaves it up, batters have done very well. When he gets it down – which is typically where he wants it – the results have been much better. Given his career-best walk rate, it’s hard to detect command issues, but the results make you wonder – in 10 games, he’s given up 9 HRs, including 7 in two games against Baltimore. Most of the damage has been done by right-handed hitters. The change is still quite effective against lefties, but he’s using it pretty often against righties, and it hasn’t been as successful. There’s nothing really wrong with that approach – it moves somewhat like a splitter, so it shouldn’t have much in the way of platoon splits. The cutter he developed recently has also been a bit spotty. Cueto’s dead-even platoon splits last year have turned into extreme *reverse* splits this year, as his K% is much higher against lefties, while he’s giving up more HRs to righties. His FIP to lefties is 2.83, but to righties it’s 4.13.
Cueto’s not *really* a guy with extreme reverse platoon splits; he’s a guy who’s made a number of bad pitches to righties, and paid a steep price. But it’s also worth considering that he isn’t a true-talent 80% left-on-base guy either. In 2013 and 2014, he put up great ERAs despite solid-but-not-Cy-Young-worthy FIPs thanks to ridiculous BABIPs of .236 and .238. Even with his so-so few months in KC, Cueto’s FIP is right in between in 2013 and 2014 marks; he doesn’t look like a different pitcher at all, it’s just that now his BABIP is a low but not insane .275, his strand rate’s lower and his ERA matches up with his FIP. Still, Cueto had full season BABIPs under .250 three times from 2011-2014, which is kind of incredible for a righty. He’s clearly pitching in front of a better defense now than when he was in Cincinnati, but it may be that Cincinnati knew a lot more about how to position themselves behind him. If that’s true, and I haven’t done any looking for evidence that it is, I wonder if that’s part of what’s going on in the so-called free agent penalty – the observation that players who stay with a team tend to do better than veteran players who sign with a new club.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, LF
6: Trumbo, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, CF
9: Sucre, C