Month: April 2019

Ode to a Pitcher: Luis Castillo shines as Reds struggle to launch

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Luis Castillo starts are becoming appointment television in Cincinnati.

Amid a historically anemic start for the Cincinnati Reds offense, Reds fans have taken solace in Luis Castillo. The young flamethrower has been excellent to open the 2019 season (stats through his last start in San Diego): 30 IP, 13 H, 14 BB, 41 K, 308 ERA+.

We’ll quibble for a moment; the hits will start dropping in before long and that walk rate is rough, but Castillo is racking up the strikeouts and the stuff — always tantalizing — is definitely for real. I’m not convinced he’s suddenly a top-10 starter, but he might be top-20. That is quite a positive development.

A fancy stat to keep an eye on? Last year, the average exit velocity off his four-seam fastball was 90.6 (right around league average). This year? Down to 81.9. Is that drop for real? Permanent? I doubt it, but if it settles in the mid to upper 80s, that’ll mean the fastball is playing better. Despite the impressive velocity, Castillo’s fastball wasn’t even a good pitch in 2018. The xwOBA (read it like an on-base percentage) was .402; the pitch value by Fangraphs was -9.6. Not great. This year both numbers look quite a bit better.

I don’t think he’s suddenly solved all his fastball issues, but I do think he’s learning. Don’t misread me: Castillo’s been incredibly fortunate so far (.197 BABIP, 87.4 strand rate), but he’s also developing. Two things can be true at the same time. I wrote about the righty last winter, wondering if he’d be able to make a few tweaks to unlock the elite hurler within himself. As fraught with peril as a 30 inning sample can be, there’s reason to be confident.

Let’s enjoy Castillo’s first inning against the San Diego Padres.

***

I love this. How cool would it be to see Luis Castillo and Fernando Tatis Jr. square off in the NLCS? Young star vs younger star. The Reds hurler starts the Padres shortstop off with a fastball down and away for ball one.

Tatis Pitch 1 FB

Castillo misses with a second fastball, belt-high and away.

Tatis Pitch 2 FB

Tatis, already with a handful of homers on the season (all of them off fastballs), can’t be taken lightly in a 2-0 count. Castillo can’t just serve up a fastball here; he splits the difference by nipping the inside corner with 96 MPH. Love the run on this pitch — and note how Tatis turns as it crosses the plate.

Tatis Pitch 3 FB

Still behind in the count at 2-1, Castillo busts out his true weapon, his changeup. This one is a beauty, running arm side and down, grabbing the inside corner for a called strike two. Through this very start in San Diego, hitters have managed a meager .083 batting average off it. I can see why.

Tatis Pitch 4 CH

It’s 2-2. Tatis has now paid witness to three fastballs (two away for balls, one inside for a strike) and a nasty change down and in for a strike. From the pitcher’s perspective, the appealing option is to bury the changeup further down and force the young shortstop to chase.

Castillo does just that, and the results are spectacular. That’s an absolutely tremendous changeup, well sequenced and perfectly located. Credit to Castillo for battling out of a 2-0 hole against a hitter with pop and punctuating it with the punchout.

Tatis Pitch 5 CH

Who doesn’t love a slow-motion look at a K?

Tatis Pitch 5 CH SLOMO

Up next is Francisco Mejia. He’s greeted with a bicep-high fastball that runs out over the plate for ball one. Imagine how pleasant it must be to think, for just the hint of a second, that a Luis Castillo fastball is about to explode into your elbow. Pleasant indeed. It’s 1-0.

Mejia Pitch 1 FB

Mejia watches a changeup run off the plate away for ball two, and yet again the young Reds righty is behind in the count. He’s started exactly half of his exchanges with a first-pitch strike, hardly a dominant number (league average is 60.3%). As announcer Chris Welsh pointed out, Castillo has the stuff to mitigate the mistake, but great pitchers don’t do this. It’s something to work on.

Mejia Pitch 2 CH

Castillo runs a fastball right over the heart of the dish and Mejia sprays it foul. Not a great spot at all, but Castillo got away with it. You can see catcher Tucker Barnhart sat up low and away.

Mejia Pitch 3 FB

Castillo misses well out of the zone with another fastball, running the count to 3-1. As stated in the intro, walks are a blinking red light of a problem for Castillo, easily my biggest fear for him as he tries to emerge as an ace. Free passes are killers against Major League offenses, regardless of how good the hurler might be otherwise. I think he can work on it, though, but it remains a concern.

Mejia Pitch 4 FB

The fifth pitch of the at-bat is another fastball low and away. Mejia bounces it slowly to short and Jose Iglesias isn’t able to make a play. A rough sequence of pitches for Castillo results in a 1-out baserunner with a superstar coming to the plate.

Mejia Pitch 5 FB

Manny Machado’s Homer-like free agent odyssey brought him to lovely San Diego, where he can live out his well-paid days playing next to Tatis Jr. Fun stuff. Castillo greets him with a fastball down and away for yet another ball. (Thom Brennaman kinda acted like this was barely a ball but … uh … are we looking at the same thing here, Thom?)

Machado Pitch 1 FB

I love this. Castillo flat-out blasts the $300 million man with a fastball at the tippy-top of the zone. Machado uncorked a mighty hack and came up with air. Note how Castillo’s delivery ends with just a hair of flourish there. He enjoyed this.

Machado Pitch 2 FB

With the count even and a runner on, Castillo unleashes the finest pitch of the breakdown and an entrant into the Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame (we’re looking into a building right now, probably). Castillo drank Machado’s milkshake with this changeup, fooling him on speed, movement and location, drawing a wild miss of a swing and an amused grin from Machado after.

Machado Pitch 4 CH

Check out the slomo on that bad boy:

Machado Pitch 4 CH SLOMO

Machado’s been around. He knows when he’s been had.

Machado Pitch 4 CH GRIN

Machado is down 1-2 in the count. He got blasted with a hard fastball and spun into a parallel dimension with a darting changeup. What will Castillo follow it up with? He goes fastball away, drawing gentle contact right in front of the plate for a quick groundout. Mejia advances to second.

Machado Pitch 5 FB

Hunter Renfroe watches a wild fastball miss into the other batter’s box for ball one. These little episodes encapsulate the Luis Castillo experience. He might depants one of the game’s elite sluggers; he might throw a ball two feet off the plate. Control is a work in progress, obviously.

Renfroe Pitch 1 FB

Again down 1-0, Castillo returns with another nasty changeup that Renfroe swings right over. As Welsh said, he has the stuff to dig out of these holes he digs for himself.

Renfroe Pitch 2 CH

Castillo doubles up on the change, throwing another one and getting the same result. Kind of incredible, isn’t it? That changeup solves a lot of problems.

Renfroe Pitch 3 CH

Renfroe isn’t in a good place here. You don’t want to be down 1-2 to a pitcher with that kind of changeup in his arsenal, especially after proving you can’t touch it. Wisely, Castillo goes back to the well again but misses inside for ball two.

Renfroe Pitch 4 CH

So, 2-2. Mejia on second. Castillo has missed with a fastball, drawn two clean swinging strikes with changeups and missed with the third. Do you go offspeed again? Reach up in the zone with the heat?

Castillo goes changeup and finishes Renfroe with it. Three swings and misses off the same pitch in one at-bat. Incredible.

Renfroe Pitch 5 CH

***

Castillo is one to watch. Will he fix the control issues? That might be the last hurdle for him to clear in order to become a Cy Young candidate. The stuff is absurd and he pitches with confidence on both sides of the plate. Reds fans, you’ve got a fun one here.

The hits will start to fall in and he’ll give up some more runs. Don’t despair. If the walks improve, that’ll be enough. He’s close.

Baseball deserves shame for its handling of Tim Anderson

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This picture will adorn countless walls in Chicago.

Picture this.

Picture yourself as the leader of an organization flush with exciting, young talent amid a culture that loves self-expression and fun. Your organization hardly has a history of inclusion and excitement, but alas, you’ve developed a loyal fan base. Maybe it’s time to stretch out the organization’s collective arms?

Picture yourself believing that — or at least, seeing the monetary potential therein — and launching a media campaign centered around one phrase, loaded with meaning: let the kids play. Picture yourself rounding up most of that incredible young talent — the Trouts and Judges and Bregmans — for a fun commercial shoot where the game’s leading ambassador and star, the unquestioned best in the business, looks right in the camera and says: just let the kids play.

And then, the first chance you get to act on this potentially exciting new initiative, imagine falling square on your face, undoing all that goodwill.

Here’s how it started, with Tim Anderson‘s epic blast and sweet bat flip:

Wonderful. I love a great bat flip. What followed, of course, was Brad Keller throwing at Anderson in response. Why? Oh, must you even ask? Anderson showed him up. It’s okay that Anderson drilled a long home run off Keller — sure, fine — but not okay that Anderson enjoyed doing it? This is stupid. Brad Keller, you were without a moment’s hesitation wrong to do this, and baseball should drop the hammer on you for it.

Now let me be clear about something. I am all for Tim Anderson flipping his bat. I am also all for Brad Keller striking Anderson out and emphatically pumping his fist after. Heck yes. I loved Jose Batista‘s epic bat flip. I love Aroldis Chapman‘s poses and Marcus Stroman‘s struts. Let baseball be fun. It turns out — I checked — that baseball is in fact allowed to be fun.

If a pitcher intentionally throws at a batter — as Keller did here — that crosses a line, and the punishment should be swift and leave a mark. The same would apply if a batter did something aggressive toward a pitcher, like for example tossing the bat toward the mound.

This is the baseball equivalent of targeting. It’s an old baseball adage to believe there’s some justice in a pitcher plunking a batter in the hip for some perceived slight, and I suppose everyone nodded in acceptance “because it’s only the hip.” But, and maybe this will be shocking to you, pitchers sometimes miss. Giancarlo Stanton‘s horrific accident wasn’t that long ago, and Mike Fiers was not trying to hit him. And yet, he did, right in the face.

Pitchers cannot be allowed to throw at batters intentionally. I don’t care if Anderson grabbed his nuts, did a dance, pointed at Keller and shimmied around the bases. We can handle that separately, but under no circumstances can a pitcher retaliate. The risks are too high.

And then, word came down that Anderson was suspended 1 game and Keller 5. We’ll get to Anderson in a second, but the idea behind Keller’s 5 game suspension is to make him miss a start, as starters work every fifth game. Well, that’s easily avoided by simply skipping Keller one day and using him the next.

Because I believe this retaliatory behavior is a tragedy waiting to happen, I think Keller should have been suspended for like 50 games. Baseball should have handled this a long time ago and didn’t. Shame on MLB.

So, about Anderson. Jeff Passon of ESPN.com had the scoop:

Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson was suspended for one game after calling Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller a “weak-ass f—ing [N-word]” during a benches-clearing incident precipitated by Keller hitting Anderson with a pitch, league sources told ESPN on Friday.

Oh, boy. Look, this is a great place for a white suburbanite baseball writer to get into trouble. So, I’ll step aside and leave you with Michael Wilbon’s opinions on the matter.

“Rob Manfred and Joe Torre, neither of whom are of color, needs to stay the hell out of this. Bring in a black deputy if you need to, recuse yourself. Stay out of it,” Wilbon said. “They need to leave the n-word alone and any adjudication involving it.”

I completely agree. Manfred hasn’t been scoring points with me for awhile anyway, but to think that two old white dudes should be the arbiter of an issue like this is ridiculous. Have just a little bit of self-awareness. How hard would it have been to just call up, oh, I don’t know, CC Sabathia or Joe Morgan or Dave Stewart and get their insight? Maybe baseball did that, but I’d be shocked. This organization is rarely prudent.

Baseball’s history with race is abhorrent, a mark on the game that will never completely wipe away. This should have been an easy one, MLB. Ignore Anderson, suspend Keller, let the kids play.

You couldn’t even do that.

 

Ode to a Pitcher: Trevor Bauer has a new toy and likes to throw it

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Trevor Bauer‘s aptitude for the art of pitching has served him well.

We all need a hobby. Something to do in our free time.

Maybe you play PS4. Watch a movie. Troll around on Reddit.

Trevor Bauer has one, too; he likes to spend his comfortable offseason developing sweet new pitches.

Last season, he whipped up a slider with the magicians/mad scientists at Driveline Baseball. It was a huge success: it ranked as the 13th best slider in baseball (minimum 150 innings) last year according to Fangraphs, just ahead of Max Scherzer. He took a non-entity of a pitch and made it a weapon.

He pulled the same trick again this winter, this time working on a changeup. As we’ll see today, Bauer’s efforts are paying off. A great changeup needs to move, be noticeably softer than the fastball and look the same out of the hand. You’ll be shocked — especially those of you who’ve read about Kevin Kelleher’s work at Driveline — that Bauer’s done all of that and more.

Look, I don’t say this lightly, but Bauer’s arsenal belongs in the conversation with Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and the other elites. I might be forgetting some folks, but those three stand out.

Any pitch at any time. The right pitch for any situation.

Bauer’s 2018 was a tremendous success — 175.1 IP, 198 ERA+, 3.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio. A couple unfortunate injuries kept him from a serious run at the Cy Young, which of course ultimately went to last week’s Ode to a Pitcher breakdown, Blake Snell. I might end up regretting not going with the Indians righty for this year’s award, because so far he looks better than ever.

Bauer faced the Seattle Mariners on Tax Day, and while overall it wasn’t his best start of the season (uh, he nearly threw a no-hitter a week-ish ago), he flashed that beautiful, tunnel-rific changeup enough that I couldn’t resist.

***

I don’t know if this is possible, but if a pitcher can have a perfectly efficient delivery, Bauer either already has it or will figure it out. He moves with such little wasted motion and from an arm angle that allows his vast repertoire to flourish with the kind of deception you’d expect from a pitcher like him. Bauer starts Mallex Smith off with a hard fastball with a lovely late arm-side run to it. Despite missing (did it?), that fastball is something else.

Smith Pitch 1 FB

Bauer brings the same pitch belt middle-in, letting the fastball run back to the inside corner. Familiar readers of this series know how I love a pitcher who works both sides of the plate, and I assure you Bauer happily does so. (Editor’s note: Sorry for the quick-cut gif here, the SportsTime Ohio broadcast was lingering elsewhere before snapping back.)

Smith Pitch 2 FB

Our first changeup! Bauer leaves it up in the zone but Smith grounds out harmlessly. You know, an epic strikeout is truly a moment to behold, but we shouldn’t look past the glory of a weak groundout. It’s an out, my dude, and every last one of them is precious. (This, of course, is why most bunts are foolish.)

Smith Pitch 3 CH

Mitch Haniger watches a fastball miss below the zone for ball one.

Haniger Pitch 1 FB

Bauer runs the next fastball over the outside corner for strike one. Look at the late movement on that sucker. Yowza.

Haniger Pitch 2 FB

With the count 1-1, Bauer misses with a changeup that runs right onto Haniger’s hands. That’s an 87 MPH changeup with incredible arm-side movement.

Haniger Pitch 3 FB

Take another look at that same pitch:

Haniger Pitch 3 FB SLOMO

Firmly in a pitcher’s count — 1-2 — Bauer has the whole playbook available to him. How about that excellent slider? Maybe his curve — readers know how I lust after a great curve. Another fastball?

Ultimately Bauer goes to the gas, missing high. Did he intend on climbing that far up? Probably not, but it keeps Haniger’s eyes up and makes a below-the-knees breaking ball even more difficult to handle.

Haniger Pitch 4 FB

You know, cutters are kind of the pitch de jour right now. Understandably so: a great cutter is a true pain in the ass for the batter. Before that, sliders and splitters were sort of en vogue, in great part because of how well they play off the fastball — think Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson for the slider, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling for the splitter. Pretty darn great.

There’s nothing revolutionary about a changeup. Pitchers have been hurling them for a long, long time, and for good reason: they work. The pitch Trevor Bauer spent all winter developing isn’t new, isn’t cutting edge, but my God is it ever sexy.

This is an unbelievably good pitch to Mitch Haniger. The speed difference is a healthy 7 or 8 MPH off the fastball, it’s sequenced wonderfully after the changeup near the eyes and the fastball high and way, and the ball starts off the plate and runs back below the swing. This is a pitcher with great stuff and an even better understanding of how to attack a hitter.

Haniger Pitch 5 CH

With two down, up steps Domingo Santana. What happens next is frankly terrifying.

Liners back to the pitcher happen all the time. We get kinda used to it as viewers, right? Weird, eh? I assume the same is true for pitchers, that it’s a risk you take whenever you throw a pitch. Blessedly, this liner nearly went right into Bauer’s glove, but if it had taken only a slightly different course …

Santana Pitch 1 CT

Here’s a slower version of it:

Santana Pitch 1 Liner

The Indians trainers came out right after and spoke with Bauer. He seemed eager to get back after it, facing Daniel Vogelbach with a runner on. The analytically-minded righty hops back into the fray with a fastball that runs just below the zone for ball one.

Vogelbach Pitch 1 FB

Another great sequencing example here. Vogelbach watches a fastball miss down and in for ball one, and Bauer follows it up with another fastball in the opposite corner. Look, it might seem obvious, but moving around the zone keeps the hitter from getting too comfortable.

Hitters are really good at what they do. They can read releases, analyze patterns and react on the fly. This series marvels at pitchers, but the same could be done for hitters. So what’s a pitcher to do? Well, the great Warren Spahn told us the path: Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.

How does working in different parts of the zone upset timing? Good question. Moving the ball around prevents the batter from keying in on one part of the plate, forcing them to potentially react later because the playing field is so wide. The equivalent in football is a quarterback who can throw to both sides of the field. Bauer owns the plate.

Vogelbach Pitch 2 FB

Sitting 1-1, Bauer breaks out the curve, dropping it right under Vogelbach’s hands for a called strike two. Even if it seems a little high in the zone for a breaking ball, the batter watches it go by. Now Bauer’s firmly in control.

Vogelbach Pitch 3 CB

Bauer doubles up on the curve, dropping this one down at the knees, forcing Vogelbach to knock it foul. As ugly as it might seem, I’m impressed with that defensive hack — remember, avoiding the out is everything, and the batter just gave himself another breath. For all we know, Bauer could groove a fastball and the Mariners tie the game on one swing. It’s baseball. We never know.

Vogelbach Pitch 4 CB

Sequencing. SEQUENCING. Bauer has worked every quadrant of the zone except down and away. He’s gone hard inside, soft away, soft inside and now hard inside again. This is brilliant stuff. Yes, I know the pitch missed — don’t miss the point. Bauer has again forced Vogelbach to consider the top of the zone, and very nearly punched him out. The batter now has a ton of input to consider before the next pitch.

Vogelbach Pitch 5 FB

Man oh man. An excellent pitch used masterfully, like a high-performance car with an Andretti behind the wheel. Bauer was in firm control from the first pitch, nearly finishing the at-bat before this but always working the situation toward the out. Make no mistake, Bauer has developed into an ace and as it stands now, he’s arguably the best pitcher in the American League.

Great stuff mixed with an excellent approach gives you moments like this.

Vogelbach Pitch 6 CH

***

This is hardly breaking news, but Bauer, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco are absolutely critical to Cleveland’s championship aspirations, flimsy as they might appear relative to previous seasons. With the Indians weathering Jose Ramirez’s slump, eagerly awaiting shortstop Francisco Lindor‘s return and navigating the loss of Mike Clevinger, Bauer’s emergence into the highest class of big league hurler last season sure has come in handy.

Opposing batters will be seeing a lot more of that changeup.

Read previous Ode to a Pitchers here.