Welcome to a new series at Raising Aces, in which we look at two pitchers whose respective values are going in opposite directions like two trains passing in the night. The goal of this series is to understand what these players are doing well—or doing wrong—that might justify the sudden change of performance, in order to better understand each player's prognosis, though the timeframe of interest is a variable that will change throughout the series.
Today we examine a pair of pitchers who were last seen on the mound this past Sunday, one of whom will be a highly-coveted free agent this winter and the other of which is a veteran retread who put up the most dominant line of the afternoon. I'm a bad-news-first kind of guy, so let's take a look at Johnny Cueto, the cagey right-hander who has lost his way, before getting to the remarkable comeback of Rich Hill.
Cueto was a stud in his first few turns with KC, buzzsawing through the high-powered offenses of the Blue Jays and Tigers (twice) and Blue Jays, but the man who once looked like their saving ace has instead become the catalyst for a Royal collapse that has seen the team go 5-10 over the last 15 games. Coming into his last start, Johnny Cueto was on a brutal four-start run. It started with a trio of turns that carried some convenient excuses to hand-wave the results, as the right-hander went at least five innings in each start and he was facing tough opponents, including the Red Sox, Orioles and Tigers in succession. There were no such excuses in his next start, a clunker against the White Sox that saw him give up five runs and nine baserunners while recording just nine outs. Yet that was child's play compared to the thrashing that Cueto took a few days ago.
With Sunday's disaster now under his belt, Cueto has a horrendous five-game ERA of 9.57 with 48 hits and eight homers allowed in his last 26.3 innings of work, a career-worst stretch for the right-hander. Seven of those eight homers are concentrated in two of his outings, and four of the bombs were given up on Sunday to the Baltimore Orioles. It's tough to blame the pitcher when Chris Davis goes deep since he takes everyone yard, and giving one up to Adam Jones is hardly a sinful trespass, but you know that something is amiss when Jonathan Schoop clears the wall not once but twice against a pitcher in the same ballgame.
Sometimes a pitcher simply loses it for a small stretch, or they fall victim to the snowball effect of run-scoring, but Sunday's game featured a continuous stream of players crossing the plate for Baltimore. They plated three runs in the first inning, notched single tallies in the second, fourth and fifth, and chased Cueto with two more runs in the seventh.
His velocity was in sync with his full-season numbers, including a 93.3-mph average fastball that sat between 92 and 95 mph for the entire outing. He threw 34 fastballs that qualified as four-seamers, yet it is the only pitch in his arsenal that didn't get taken out of the yard; he gave up a homer on each of the sinker, changeup, cutter, and slider. The issue was pitch location and (lack of) movement, as demonstrated by the Schoop homerun in the first GIF: the pitch was set up by the catcher with a frame on the low-outside edge of the strike zone, but the 86-mph cutter didn't have enough cut, sitting flat in the middle of the zone as a made-to-order cookie for Schoop.
It was as if Cueto's pitches were instinctively drawn to the middle of the strike zone. His first pitch of the game was dead-center, right in the middle of the number five on the strike-zone keypad, but a meaningless groundout covered for the mistake. Chris Davis hit a first-inning single on a cutter that looked a lot like the one that Schoop hit out of the yard, both of which followed a tractor beam to the middle of the five key, and Schoop's second homer came on a slider that only slid a few inches further away from the cutter that he tattooed earlier in the game. At least the Jones homer was on a good pitch, a low sinker with run that Jones just scooped out of the yard.
Cueto earned modest grades for his delivery in the 2015 Starting Pitcher Guide, scoring him with a C+ grade overall and with Repetition being his only plus attribute. He has a motion that is littered with quirks, such as the extreme Tiant twist in which he turns halfway around to face the bleachers at maximum leg lift, or the quick pitch that he executes with hardly any lift at all. He threw in a little head-fake and shoulder waggle at times on Sunday, and the myriad fascinations of his delivery naturally lead to worries about his mechanics. The pump fake was intended to be more for show, ostensibly used to distract hitters and throw off their timing, and is largely disconnected from the functional parts of his mechanics.
That said, the extra movements have the potential to greatly disrupt Cueto's mechanical timing, and though his plus grade was given on the basis of his ability to repeat the timing and positioning of his delivery back in 2014, the Repetition grade is also the most volatile of the lot, and the right-hander's score has suffered in recent outings. The abrupt start-stop and the plethora of time signatures have been difficult to align with Cueto's timing of trunk rotation, resulting in missed targets both in and out of the strike zone. In addition, his balance was somewhat compromised at times on Sunday, causing him to drift to the first-base side and further interfering with his release point. He also mixed in the quick-pitch with what seems like an ever-growing frequency.
Throwing a monkey wrench into mechanical timing is a dicey proposition, especially given the potential impact on pitch command, and though Cueto has shown the ability to harness some wild motions this new level of funk might be too much for him to contain. At some point, such tomfoolery loses all functionality and becomes a bigger detriment to the trickster than to his opponents (a.k.a. the Dick Dastardly paradigm), and Cueto appears to have sailed past that point of utility. Exhibit A:
Manny Machado saw two consecutive quick-pitches, then this ridiculous song-and-dance, followed by another quick-pitch. He eventually walked and then scored on the Jones homerun. If Cueto is to get back in line in time for the playoffs, then it would be wise to simplify his mechanical routine and stick with a plan that emphasizes pitch command above everything else, deception included.
Prior to Sunday, Rich Hill hadn't started a big-league game since July 27th, 2009, when he was pitching for the Orioles. He spent the vast majority of his time over the last five years in the bullpen, mostly in Triple-A, as he amassed just 75.7 innings pitched at the highest level in the five years from 2010 to 2014. The 35-year old has long been forgotten by most of the baseball community, but there was a time when he flashed immense upside and in his heyday Hill had the potential to spike double-digit K's (three times in 16 starts in '06). Well, he did it again on Sunday, making the start for the Red Sox against Tampa Bay and coming out the other side not only unscathed, but with a clean scoreboard and only two baserunners allowed yet ten strikeouts over 7.0 frames.
The Red Sox brought Hill aboard to be a starter so he was immediately converted upon joining the Triple-A team in Pawtucket, making five starts in the International League before getting the call for roster expansion. He was kept under 100 pitches in each of his minor-league starts but went to 109 throws in his Boston debut, a reflection of his dominant performance as well as the late-season context for the veteran hurler.
The big curve that first put Hill on the radar (more than ten years ago) is still alive and well, and though it's a loopy breaker that hitters should be able to identify out of hand, the southpaw was mostly met with confused looks from opposing batters who could only watch the hammer fly by for a called strike. He threw a whopping 52 breaking balls on the day, which would be far too many for a developing arm but which leads to much less consternation when talking about a veteran pitcher who is probably happy just to collect another big-league paycheck.
The velocity averaged a shade under 91 mph, which is unimpressive in isolation and only gains an ounce of respect when considering that it's coming from a left-hander, but his command of the heater was very impressive on Sunday. Hill was essentially a two pitch pitcher with the fastball-breaking ball combination, which is the type of limited arsenal that can easily be exposed after multiple viewings, but in this contest Hill owned the element of surprise while the late date on the calendar quelled any worries of long-term overexposure.
Mechanics Report Card
Hill showed solid balance, though he had a bit of a drop out of max leg lift and would rock back toward second during the stride phase. His left-right balance was well-maintained on Sunday, culminating in excellent posture at release point, and he was able to find a consistent release point despite a very closed stride. The southpaw started on the third-base side of the rubber and aimed his stride toward the back of the left-hand batter's box, and though some closed-striding pitchers will cut themselves off by throwing across the body thus failing to reach full extension, Hill showed none of these issues as the closed stride-angle appeared to be in line with his personal signature.
Hill had an above-average pace to the plate that he was able to repeat well throughout the ballgame, and though his overall power was limited due to mediocre torque, he achieved a good balance of upper-body load and delayed trigger in maximizing his hip-shoulder separation. The emphasis on stability in light of decent scores for power allowed Hill to emphasize pitch command as opposed to trying to overpower hitters, a strategy that played well with his curveball-heavy approach. His strong stability aided Hill in commanding the breaker, allowing him to get strikes looking within the zone and strikes waving when he buried the curve beneath the hard deck. The pitch was devastating at peak, and resulted in seven of his ten strikeouts on the day.