Johnny Cueto is bad. And not in the ironic usage of the word.
His postseason career started off reasonably enough, albeit in series-losing fashion. He allowed 2 runs in 5 innings against the Phillies; his offense backed him up by scoring 0, and Philadelphia swept the Reds out of the 2010 postseason in three games in the NLDS.
His next appearance was in Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS against San Francisco. The Reds won that game, but Cueto only recorded one out before leaving with a back injury, so you can’t really weigh his impressive 0.00 ERA and no-hitter in his favor too much.
From there, he managed to turn pretty bad. In the winner-take-all NL Wild Card Game against the Pirates the following season, he allowed 4 runs without even making it through 4 innings. His 10.80 ERA in those 3 1/3 innings pretty much ensured the Reds would not advance to face the Cardinals.
This postseason, he’s been enigmatic at best, and downright terrible at worst. The Royals won his first start, in which he allowed 4 runs through the first 3 innings, but retired 9 of the next 11 hitters he faced in innings 4-6, and departed before the 7th with a 4-4 tie at home. In the deciding fifth game, he surrendered a 2-run home run in the 2nd inning, then set down the next 19 Astros in a row before being lifted prior to the 9th.
With that start–8 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 8 K–Cueto was hailed as having figured out how to pitch in big games again. When the Reds traded him on July 26, he was 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA with 120 strikeouts in over 130 innings pitched and a .196 batting average-against. The Royals acquired him in an effort to distance themselves from the pack in the AL Central, and to have an answer for any Bumgarner-esque performances from opposing teams in the postseason. His first four starts for Kansas City went very well (2-1, 1.80 ERA, 21 K’s in 30 IP), but the wheels came off almost instantly, starting on August 21 at Boston. Over his final 9 starts, he went 2-6, pitching 51 1/3 innings; opponents hit .348 (.348!!!) against him, and his ERA was 6.49 over the stretch, ballooning that number nearly a full run from 2.46 before the Boston start to 3.44 at season’s end.
“Game score,” devised by Bill James, is another interesting statistic that can be used to track the quality of a pitcher’s start. Essentially, you start with 50 and add or subtract points based on the number of outs, strikeouts, hits, runs, and walks recorded by the pitcher. Cueto’s average game score during his stint with the Reds was 63–well above average (his career average through this season is 56, which still outpaces the MLB average, over the same time span, of 51). He recorded scores ranging from 35 to 93 (the MLB record, held by Kerry Wood, is 105). In his first four games as a Royal, his average was 66, including a high of 87 and low of 51. From there, he ranged from 23 to 56; his average over those final 9 starts has 39–not great, even by average-pitcher standards.
That brings us to last night. Johnny Cueto, in recording a mere six outs while allowing eight runs, achieved a game score of 10. That’s not a typo. That’s actually supposed to be a ten. For the record, the lowest such score recorded in the past half-century was a -21 (incidentally, also in 1998). The “base-out runs saved” metric estimates that Cueto himself cost Kansas City nearly 7 runs.
Basically, all the momentum Johnny had built up by beating the Astros in the ALDS clincher, he threw away in two short and horrific innings. We’ll almost certainly have at least one more chance to see Cueto in action this postseason, either in game 6 Friday (if the Blue Jays can avoid elimination tomorrow night), or possibly game 1 of the World Series. It’ll be interesting to see if manager Ned Yost sticks with Cueto in either of those situations, or if he thinks he needs a poor outing like he needs a kick to the head.