How Johnny Cueto Carried the Royals to the American League Championship Series
It was already over in the second inning.
With one swing of the bat, Luis Valbuena gave the Houston Astros a 2-0 lead over the Kansas City Royals in the deciding Game 5 of the American League Division Series. And it was a sign that the real Johnny Cueto was still nowhere to be found, dooming the Royals' chances of advancing.
You can't blame people for this immediate and knee-jerk abandoning of ship. After all, Cueto was brutal down the stretch, recording a 6.49 ERA over his last 9 starts. In that stretch, he allowed three home runs in a single game on two separate occasions, and now he was going up against one of the league's top home-run hitting offenses. It was game, set, match.
But then Cueto found something. After retiring the side in the second, he put them down in order in the third. Then in the fourth. And the fifth. And even the sixth. Not a single additional base runner touched first the rest of the game as Cueto set down the final 19 batters he faced, allowing the Royals' offense to lead them to a 7-2 victory.
What happened to cause this rapid turnaround? Let's dig in to try to figure out how Cueto pushed his team into the American League Championship Series.
Were Cueto's Second-Half Struggles Real?
The first possible explanation for Cueto's sudden dominance would be that he never struggled in the first place. After all, nine starts is a small sample. Maybe it was just bad luck?
This was most definitely not the case, and the struggles had lasted well longer than nine starts. In fact, Ceuto's struggles span way back to when he was still a member of the Cincinnati Reds.
In his final start before the All-Star break, Cueto struck out only two batters over five innings of work. Normally with him, we'd dismiss that as being an outlier, but then it kept on happening. He had two strikeouts in his next start. Then another two-strikeout performance three starts later. Overall, Cueto failed to record more than 5 strikeouts in 13 of his final 16 regular-season starts and his first start of the postseason. Over his final 16 starts, Cueto averaged only 5.95 strikeouts per nine innings.
This was not the only thing that sunk Cueto. His walks increased to 2.29 per nine innings, meaning he was putting base runners on both via not getting strikeouts and issuing free passes. As his ground-ball rate dipped to 41.7 percent (down from 46.2 last year and 50.9 the previous season), that led to Cueto being in trouble with regularity. His xFIP inflated to 4.39 over those final 16 regular-season starts. There was legitimate reason for concern. This was not some fluke caused by bad luck; Cueto was actually struggling mightily.
So we can rule out small sample size as being the issue for Cueto. So what was it that spawned such a brilliant performance when Cueto needed it most? At least part of this has to come down to the offense he was facing.
The Astros' Role in Cueto's Dominance
As mentioned above, the Astros hit a bunch of home runs. They were second in the league this year with 230. But they also found themselves second in another category: strikeout rate.
All in all, the Astros struck out in 22.9 percent of their plate appearances, second only to another young team that is still kicking in the postseason in the Chicago Cubs. This led the Astros to have stretches where they simply could not get men on base if the BABIP gods weren't in their corner, and we saw that exact thing happen Wednesday night.
Cueto finished his eight innings with eight strikeouts, his highest total since August 26th. He was able to generate 10 swings and misses for a 16.1 swinging-strike percentage. That was well beyond any number he posted in a single start down the stretch, and he only topped 10.0 percent in 4 of those final 16 starts. His stuff was electric, and the Astros couldn't touch it. It was the perfect team for Cueto to face if he were looking to get back in his strikeout zone.
At the same time, you can't chalk this whole performance up to the Astros struggling. As a team in the regular season, they walked in 8.0 percent of their plate appearances. Cueto walked nobody. They only had an 11.5 swinging-strike rate in the regular season; Cueto well exceeded that. So this wasn't simply a product of their offense. Cueto clearly found something, and it allowed him to channel a version of himself that we hadn't seen in quite some time.
What This Means Moving Forward
If Cueto actually has fixed what was ailing him, he couldn't have picked a better time to do so. First of all, the Royals may not have won that game and advanced had he not. Second, now that they have advanced, a date with the Toronto Blue Jays looms. That's a little scary for a pitcher trying to snap out of a funk.
Remember how the Astros were second in home runs? The Blue Jays topped them with 232. They, however, did so without a high strikeout rate, posting the fifth best mark in the entire league. None of the other teams in the top five had more than 161 home runs.
Additionally, the Blue Jays only had a swinging-strike percentage of 9.1, a full 2.4 percentage points lower than the Astros. The Astros' offense is a very good one; the Blue Jays are elite.
The other issue Cueto runs into against the Blue Jays is that he's a reverse-platoon-splits pitcher. His xFIP against right-handed batters this year (4.14) was significantly higher than his mark against lefties (3.41). Those big three bats in the Jays' order? They're all right-handed. That could cause some serious troubles.
If Cueto were the same pitcher he was down the stretch -- the one who couldn't get strikeouts and had a low ground-ball rate -- he'd be in a world of trouble against the Jays. However, that's not the Cueto we saw Wednesday. That version of Johnny Cueto would be capable of shutting down the Blue Jays despite their plate prowess. With that kind of stuff, he could easily put the Royals one game closer to the World Series.
It's hard to tell whether Cueto's stuff will be as electric his next time out as it was Wednesday. But for right now, it's cool not to worry about that. When a pitcher sets down the final 19 batters he faces in an elimination game, it's not a bad thing to just sit back and enjoy what you just watched unfold. And what we watched unfold Wednesday was the re-emergence of the star the Royals thought they acquired back in July and one that could carry them to a second consecutive American League pennant.