My wife and I trekked down to Great American Ballpark on Monday. Why?
Mike Trout was in town. That was reason enough: to say we saw the greatest alive and perhaps the greatest ever at the peak of his powers. Despite an uncharacteristic error, Trout was Trout; he got on-base, easily swiped a bag and drilled a homer. He’s unreal, and every baseball fan should see him work.
But, in a sense, I was even more excited to see Trout against Luis Castillo. Castillo, the unquestioned best pitcher in a quite good Reds rotation, didn’t fare well against the presumptive MVP. He joins a long list in that category. Don’t hold it against him.
Castillo is an ace and better than I expected. His changeup is the best of its kind; thrown in the high 80s with harsh late movement, tunneled perfectly with his 97 MPH fastball. His approach is often quite simple; work with the fastball and slider into a two-strike count, then it’s changeup time. Hitters are whiffing an astounding 51.2 percent of the time against the change. He throws it more than any pitch in his repertoire, and batters still can’t touch it (.185 xwOBA).
Before the season I wondered if Castillo’s rather hittable fastball might hold him back. Well, it’s roughly as hittable this year as last, but he found a solution.
Throw more changeups. Amen, brother.
Let’s watch Castillo take on the Los Angeles Angels in a recent start. Spoiler: there will be changeups.
To beat Castillo, stay out of strikeout counts
We’re in the second inning here. Up first for the Angels is Matt Thaiss. Castillo opens the exchange with a fastball for strike one.
Castillo’s fastball is a great primer in spin rate. Yes, the velocity is impressive, but the spin just isn’t great (especially on his four-seamer). Thus, hitters can square it up. That doesn’t mean his fastball is a bad pitch — it’s not, and he uses it wisely — but rather it’s not as useful as you might imagine just considering the velocity. There’s still a part of my brain that sees velocity and assumes instinctively the pitch must be untouchable.
The first fastball was up in the zone and so is the second; Castillo runs it over the outer half of the plate and Thaiss knocks it foul. You can see that Castillo gets some nice horizontal movement on his fastball, especially the two-seamer. He’s pretty darn good at pitching in sequence with the fastball, using it to angle a hitter into the right situation to drop that lethal changeup on them.
Matt Thaiss, this is your life. You’ve seen two heaters above the belt, both for strikes. You are primed and ready for a changeup. Castillo throws one but runs it too far outside for Thaiss to take. Even despite missing, this is a useful pitch in sequence. Even if Thaiss makes contact, what is he gonna do with this? Pretty much nothing.
With the count 1-2, Castillo returns to the changeup and this one is on the money. Watch how it plunges out of the strike zone at the last moment, drawing a strong but ultimately feeble hack from Thaiss. Even after showing him one right before, what can the batter do?
This is a beauty of a pitch, well-sequenced and tunneled. Castillo is a hell of a talent.
Reds fans might need a cigarette after this:
Up next is Kevan Smith. Castillo runs a fastball onto the outside corner and Smith bounces it to second for a quick out. Sure, this isn’t exactly as sexy as that changeup to Thaiss, but guess what? Great pitchers take easy outs when they can get them. One pitch, one out is a victory.
Jared Walsh is the last hope for the Angels in the second. Castillo starts him with a fastball, yet another one to open an at-bat, right above the belt inside. Note that late action toward the inside corner. Tough pitch for Walsh to do anything with even if he had swung.
Why wait for two strikes? Castillo changes quadrants and speeds with a changeup low and away. Walsh, the poor guy, has between zero and one percent chance of contact. Because Castillo’s velocity looks so darn easy out of his hand, the changeup comes with effectively zero tells. There’s no wrist action like with a curveball, no distinctive spin like with a slider.
What should the batter even do here? Castillo just has you. There’s a reason changeups have been around forever. They work.
So, Castillo has Walsh 0-2 and has shown him the changeup. He has options. Do you go back to the change, maybe run it below the zone? Makes sense. How about a fastball; maybe go back inside or above the zone away? If you don’t go change, you probably want to change the eye level.
Castillo goes back to the moneymaker but throws it a smidge more inside, and Walsh resists for ball one. Perhaps the lowness of it gave Walsh the inclination to hold back? I don’t know. However it happened, he lives to see another pitch in a stacked count against an ace. That, my dudes, is a victory for the hitter.
Walsh resisted the 0-2 changeup. Time to set up a new sequence. Castillo’s 1-2 pitch is a fastball well out of the zone away. Great idea. Why?
- If Walsh swings, he probably misses
- If Walsh makes contact, he can only knock it foul or produce weak contact
- If Walsh takes it, you’ve forced his eyes back up above the zone
This is a brilliant pitch in sequence. Castillo, with one fastball, has set himself up to throw a better changeup than the one just before.
And he does. This sequence to Walsh reveals so much about Castillo. It’s easy to lose our breath over movement and velocity. I love that too, trust me. (Obviously.) But great pitchers get outs with more than stuff; they work hitters into the right situation to finish them off, just like how a boxer feints and moves his opponent into the right position for a big punch. It’s the same idea.
Fastball, called strike. Change, swinging strike. Change, ball. Castillo didn’t throw his best changeup in the 0-2 count and likely knew it. So, what did he do? Threw a fastball above the zone to set up a third changeup, and with another chance, Castillo threw a great one. This is some high-IQ pitching from one of the sport’s best young hurlers. Bravo.
Castillo could still factor into the NL Cy Young race
I’m pretty sure if you made me vote today, I’d go with Max Scherzer for 2019 NL Cy Young. I can hardly argue with someone who’d vote for Hyun-Jin Ryu, though. An ERA in the mid-ones is off the charts. He’s been incredible.
Castillo, for all his excellence, just walks too many for me to include him in that discussion. He’s done better with the free passes of late — that bodes well for the future — but right now, can’t do it.
But next year? If the walks keep trickling down …