Johnny Cueto has not pitched well recently. This is a statement that is inarguable, a statement along the lines of 'never get involved in a land war in Asia,' 'Abraham Lincoln was not a vampire hunter,' and 'never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.' You probably don't want to hear his statistics recently...
...wait, you do? Really? Ok, here they are:
On second thought, you shall be spared the gory details and instead be given three numbers: 9.57, 5, over 9,000. The first is Cueto's ERA, and the second is how many of his most recent starts that covers. The third number is your average fan's panic level for Cueto at this point.
Whether or not we should be worried about Cueto is not the issue. The answer is either yes or no; most accurately, Cueto is Schrodinger's Pitcher. Until the playoffs begin, the box opens, and Cueto pitches poorly or well, we can worry and choose not to worry at the same time.
But let's assume that the worst happens. Cueto continues to captain his own personal Titanic into the iceberg of New York or Houston or whichever team is the Royals' opponent in the American League Divisional Series. That would be bad. Not only would the team's fortunes be hurt, but continued failure will negatively impact his free agent pay day next year, if only by a small amount. Still, $1 million is $1 million. It behooves him to perform.
Can the Kansas City Royals make a deep playoff run with their best pitcher, the one that they acquired specifically to carry them to and through the playoffs, doing his best Kyle Davies impersonation?
The answer: yes.
On December 9, 2012, the Royals acquired James Shields, Wade Davis, and Elliot Johnson for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard. The Royals got their ace, trading some of their top minor league talent. General Manager Dayton Moore wanted a pitcher to carry the Royals to the playoffs and be their ace, the anchor of their rotation, in the playoffs. It was a steep price, but Moore thought the Royals would benefit.
Sound familiar? If you take 'Shields' and replace it with 'Cueto' for the previous few sentences, there is no discernible difference.
The Royals did not make the playoffs in 2013. They did make the playoffs in 2014. Not only that, but the Royals squeaked in as a Wild Card team, forced to achieve victory in a single game to forge ahead to the ALDS. Moore got the matchup he wanted: a Shields-led Royals team in a do-or-die situation.
Shields did not deliver.
Coco Crisp led off the game with a single. Three batters later, Brandon Moss cracked a two-run homer to put the Oakland Athletics on top immediately. The Royals fought back, scoring one in the first inning and two in the third, leading 3-2 going into the sixth. Shields proceeded to serve up a single to Sam Fuld and walk Josh Donaldson, before being yanked for Yordano Ventura. Fuld and Donaldson would score on Moss' second home run of the game. Shields' final line: five innings pitched, five hits, two walks, six strikeouts, four earned runs. His ERA for that game: 7.20. This performance in the Royals' most important game in 29 years.
Thankfully, the Royals used their postseason magic and won the Wild Card Game in grand fashion. Because Shields was forced to start in that game, he did not start until Game 3 of the ALDS. Up two games to none, Shields had a large cushion, as the Royals' offense gave him a four-run lead by the third inning. Shields pitched six innings and allowed only two runs against the Los Angeles Angels.
Because of the ALDS sweep, Shields was able to start Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series. The Baltimore Orioles peppered him for 10 hits in five innings, scoring four runs on Kansas City's de facto ace. Shields was not needed again, as the Royals swept the Orioles in four games.
In the World Series, Shields struggled even more. In Game 1, Shields allowed big hits to Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, digging a three-run hole for his offense in the first inning. Shields allowed a double, wild pitch, and walk to lead off the fourth inning, and both baserunners he allowed would score. His final line: three innings pitched, eight baserunners allowed, five earned runs. In Game 5, Shields turned in his final performance of the playoffs--a nice, six-inning performance while only allowing two runs. He was up against the Legend of Madison Bumgarner, though, who prevailed against the offense yet again.
James Shields' final line in the 2014 playoffs: five starts, 25 innings pitched, 6.12 ERA. He never allowed fewer than two runs, and he never went more than six innings. Despite his overall poor play, Kansas City still eked and bullied their way to Game 7 of the World Series.
Now, Johnny Cueto has been worse than Shields in their most recent five starts with Kansas City, as Cueto has been allowing over three runs per nine innings more than Shields was.
But Cueto is only one player. In the playoffs, with trigger-happy managers, rest days, and more bullpen arms, a poor start can be countered before it gets out of control. We saw that last year with Shields, and we will see that again this year when one of the Royals' starters turns in a bad performance.
Obviously, the Royals are better with a good Cueto. Obviously, Cueto has been unplayable recently. But even if Terrible Johnny shows up in the playoffs, the Royals can survive. They did it last year. Hopefully, though, they won't have to do it again this year.