Hell if I know what ails Johnny Cueto.

At this point, if anyone tells you they know, simply nod your head and move away. Slowly. Because, no one – not even Johnny Cueto – knows ails Johnny Cueto.

Sunday, it was the same old story. Cueto shimmied, left pitches in the meaty part of the zone, and got absolutely destroyed.

Is he injured? Cueto missed time in both the 2013 and 2011 seasons with shoulder issues. He missed a start earlier this summer with what the Reds termed “general stiffness.”  He has a history there, but what pitcher doesn’t have an injury history? We’ve been over this before. Throwing a baseball in anger at a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches puts an undue amount of strain on the arm. It’s an occupational hazard.

It’s also an easy theory to write off any pitcher who is experiencing a struggle of some sort. A good tip when a pitcher is battling an ailment is a dip in velocity. (Cough. Greg Holland. Cough.) Cueto’s velocity on all his pitches has been consistent over the last two seasons.

Cueto_Velo

Is it mechanical? How the hell do you break down Cueto’s mechanics? He has such a variety of deliveries, it would be easy if it was just one thing he was doing on one particular delivery. Sadly, the game isn’t so simple.

Is he tipping his pitches? That seemed to be the thought of the Royals pitching brain trust ahead of the most recent Cueto debacle. I’m skeptical. Normally, if a pitcher is tipping, it’s on one particular pitch. The way he holds his glove before he throws a curve. The way he dips his shoulder before he throws a slider. That sort of thing. On Sunday, the Orioles didn’t feast on a particular pitch. They ate everything. Adam Jones… Fastball. Jonathan Schoop… Slider. Twice. Chris Davis… Change. It’s possible Cueto is tipping everything, allowing opposing batters to get a look at the ball early in his delivery, but I’m not sure that’s a theory I’ll buy. The sliders were fat city. Pitches with little bite. The change was off the plate that was hammered with brute strength. The fastball looked like it bent in but was located poorly. With Cueto, he has such a variety of deliveries, how could anyone tell with certainty if he’s tipping his pitches?

What about sequencing. A quick look at the PitchF/X data shows he’s leaning on his change less since coming to KC. In fact, he’s throwing it less in the last two months than any time over the last two years.

Cueto_Pitches

The fastball and change combo have worked in tandem for Cueto in the past. They are his two most effective pitches. Here are the weighted value of his change-ups (wCH) since 2010:

2010 – 4.0
2011 – 2.3
2012 – 3.1
2013 – 7.1
2014 – 14.1
2015 with Reds – 2.0
2015 with Royals – -0.6

Cueto is moving away from throwing his change and that pitch is getting hit more than usual, suppressing it’s value. That sounds like we may be on to something, but all his pitches are getting hit over his last several starts. It’s not just the change that is betraying Cueto.

Cueto_BAA

This is the entire Cueto problem. You start heading down one path, trying to identify something… You see an aberration. You follow the trail… And then it goes cold. There just doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Finally, is he feeling the pressure as the anointed ace of a team with World Series aspirations? I suppose that’s possible, but that just feels like a cop-out. Cueto has played this game for a long time. He’s pitched in pennant races. He’s pitched in October (although his track record in the postseason is short and extremely ugly.) He’s been the top guy on a Reds pitching staff that has usually had enough talent to play into October. In other words, this isn’t exactly a new situation for him. Yes, it’s a new team, but this group has welcomed him with open arms. He didn’t push someone deserving out of a spot. Cueto arrived in Kansas City with the goal of pushing this team deep into the postseason.

I have to digress for just a moment and note that I made the mistake of reading some of the comments posted on McCullough’s gamer. At the moment, “send him to the minors” leads “cut his greedy ass” by a margin of about two to one. My god…

Cueto is on the cusp of free agency, where he will make enough cash to set his family for life. This struggle has gone on long enough, it’s starting to cost him money. And it’s costing the Royals more than a few collective grey hairs as they try to get him on track.

I think it’s OK to admit that there isn’t an easy explanation for the struggles of Johnny Cueto. It’s amazing though, that we’ve reached this point where we are no longer noting things like, “This is the worst four start stretch of Cueto’s career.” That’s because he’s gone off the charts as far as personal futility. Every start now, we are plunging deeper into the darkness. This is not what the Royals envisioned when they traded for him at the deadline. They bought a starter with the intention he would act as an anchor for the rotation. They didn’t know that anchor would pull the entire team down. Melodramatic? Perhaps. But we’re moving past the point where we can rationally discuss the Cueto Problem.

What are the next steps for the Royals? Well, they didn’t get him to win the division. That was already pretty much secure when they made the trade for Cueto. They got him to make the first start in each series they play in October. They have about four more starts to get him right. Failing that, they will almost certainly need to push him back in a playoff rotation. Game One would belong to Edinson Volquez or Yordano Ventura. The Cueto start would be the one where you would need to have a box of Rolaids next to you on the sofa. He’s now a huge question mark for this team and this rotation.

And we’re back to where we started… asking what the hell is wrong with Johnny Cueto?