The Cincinnati Reds want to contend in 2019.
The Reds lost 95 games last year, but they’ve been connected to high-profile free agents and trade targets all offseason. Earlier in the offseason, the incomparable Daniel R. Epstein speculated whether they were serious about Dallas Keuchel, A.J. Pollock, or anyone at all. Then they acquired Tanner Roark from the Nationals and last week, they acquired Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp from the Dodgers.
Apparently, the Reds are serious. With a lineup that features Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, Yasiel Puig, and Matt Kemp (if he’s good), they’ll have an offense to be reckoned with. By DRC+ they outhit the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates in 2018.
The issue is whether they can pitch. The Reds aren’t throwing out an entire sub-replacement pitching staff anymore, but their pitchers haven’t exactly been good. In 2018, they were 24th in ERA, 27th in FIP, 22nd in SIERA, and 26th in DRA. The additions of Tanner Roark and Alex Wood and the subtraction of Homer Bailey ought to help, but the Reds need more than those two to get them in contention. Even if they were to pick up Corey Kluber and Dallas Keuchel, they would still need someone to fill out the rotation.
The Reds, then, need one of their starters to perform better, and the best candidate for that is Luis Castillo. In his rookie year, Castillo pitched to a 3.41 DRA in 89 1/3 innings. That’s impressive considering he skipped triple-A entirely. However, he followed that up with an underwhelming sophomore season. In 2018, Castillo started 31 games, but his DRA rose to 4.76.
Castillo is a four-pitch pitcher offering a fourseam, sinker, changeup, and slider. Though his fastball sits mid-90s, the changeup is the best pitch by far. By pitch values, it’s saved him an average of 9.5 runs over his first two seasons. When he throws the change, batters whiff at it over a quarter of the time. His next best swing and miss pitch is the slider at 16.2 percent.
His high velocity and two good secondary offerings allow him to shine at times, and those times tend to be against right-handed hitters. In 2018, he held righties to a .256 wOBA. The issue is that he got torched by lefties. Against opposite-handed hitters, Castillo allowed a .373 wOBA, and 18 of his 28 home runs were hit by lefties.
Nearly every right-handed pitcher gets hit harder by lefties, but Castillo’s problems are exacerbated by a couple of things. First, he only rarely throws sliders to lefties which isn’t unusual but with his arsenal, he almost becomes a three-pitch pitcher against them. Unless he learns a cutter or a curve, or he becomes more confident in throwing backfoot sliders, he’ll have to make the sinker, fourseam, and changeup work.
Second, he might be making it too easy to guess when a changeup is coming. To both lefties and righties, Castillo has preferred to keep the changeup on the lower corner of the arm-side part of the plate.
To lefties, he’s kept his fourseam up and to the glove side.
He’s also left a not insignificant portion of his fastballs over the heart of the plate, so no wonder they get pounded. A left-handed hitter can be mostly assured that if a pitch is coming inside it’s a fastball, and if it’s away, it’s a sinker or a changeup. Against righties, he can use the slider to back up the fastball and vice versa, but Castillo hasn’t mixed his pitches as effectively to lefties.
Another tell could be that Castillo’s release point with the changeup is consistently lower than that of his fastball.
Changeups are designed to look like fastballs until they reach a point around 23 feet in front of the plate, but if Castillo is telegraphing his fastballs and changeups before they leave his hand, both pitches are going to be less effective.
If Castillo can make his release point between the two pitches more consistent and vary his pitch location, it ought to alleviate some of his woes against lefties.
If the Reds are in fact going to compete, they’ll need Castillo to pitch to his potential. They’ll need to do a lot of other things, too, but getting Castillo on track is among the most immediate of needs.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles.