My wife and I trekked down to Great American Ballpark on Monday. Why?
Mike Troutwas 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.
Rewind to last Sunday. After splitting the first two games of the road series with the Cincinnati Reds, the Nats sent their ace to the mound. The three-time Cy Young winner is a treat to watch and analyze not just because of his effectiveness, but also his demeanor. We’ve covered Scherzer in this series — spoiler: he was nasty — and as you might imagine, the images are just insane.
He pitches violently, almost as if the batter stole something from him, and now, finally, revenge is in sight. He pitches to conquer and refuses to tap. He’s a treat, a healthy dose of intensity to a sport that can at times feel mundane.
It’s the bottom of the eighth and the Nationals hold a 4-1 run lead. They decide to keep their ace on the mound. He’s already past 100 pitches; normally this would mean a call to the bullpen. But the Nationals bullpen is a disaster and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer. The choice is obvious.
Up first is Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. Mad Max leaves a fastball over the plate and Barnhart rips it to right field for a first-pitch double. Smart hitting here, and I don’t mean that sarcastically or to sound obvious. Scherzer is deep in the game and has a reputation for attacking; wise to sit fastball and be ready to pounce. Barnhart was ready.
Jose Peraza pinch hits for Michael Lorenzen with a chance to shorten the lead. There’s no indication that Nationals manager Dave Martinez wants to yank Scherzer yet. The ace gives Peraza a fastball away for ball one.
It seems foolhardy to wonder what Scherzer wants here; he always wants the strikeout, and he’s already racked up 13. Against Peraza with Barnhart on second, the goal is obviously a punchout or any other out that doesn’t advance Barnhart. That has to inform everything Scherzer does.
The righty delivers a down-away fastball, this one catching enough of the plate for the Reds infielder to knock it foul.
Love this pitch. Scherzer has set Peraza’s eyes away; he might naturally assume something offspeed is coming in the same spot. Ah, but Scherzer changes course and drives a fastball right under his hands. Peraza can only fly out weakly to the lip of the infield. One down.
Young center fielder Nick Senzel is up next, and what a nice test it would prove to be for the rookie. Senzel flashes a good bat. Here he’ll be battling an angry flamethrower with the game on the line. You don’t get these kinds of reps anywhere but the bigs.
Scherzer greets the future star with a fastball belt high and away for a called strike. Note the late run on that heater. Yikes.
Same principles as above are in play here. You want an out that keeps Barnhart put. Scherzer is pitching for the throat, I assure you, but another easy fly out would do the job too. (Barnhart isn’t a big threat to try and advance.)
Working with an 0-1 count, Scherzer drops a slider below the zone; Senzel shows some restraint in not chasing.
Senzel holds off on another slider, this one a tad further outside, to run the count 2-1. Well done.
Scherzer tries to sneak a fastball past Senzel in the same path as the slider; you’ll be shocked to learn that the future Hall of Famer is able to tunnel his pitches. Senzel has a nice swing, but you can tell he scrambled to knock this foul. In its own way, that’s impressive. The count is back in the hands of the pitcher, though.
It’s obvious Scherzer is intent on working Senzel away. After a couple sliders and a fastball, Mad Max drops a damn good looking changeup on the young center fielder. It’s called a ball … and I guess it’s low, but man. I think #31 wanted that one.
Full count. Good hitters work the at-bats in their favor, taking balls and spoiling strikes they don’t want until the pitcher submits, giving them something to drive. Senzel, for all I know, could have been hanging on for dear life the whole time here. It’s Max Scherzer, and he’s pissed. Surviving this long is no small feat.
Either way, through skill or desperation, Senzel is a pitch away from a free base in a three-run game. Great job.
Scherzer drives a fastball right over the plate — this is a real mano e mano deal — and Senzel knocks it foul. The fastball is a little much for him so far, but he stays alive. Scherzer has thrown a lot of pitches on a sunny afternoon in late May; making him work like this can reap rewards.
Scherzer wisely turns back to his epic changeup after the fastball, but it catches too much plate and the rookie bounces it foul. He appears to hit the catcher’s glove, but regardless. Senzel lives for another pitch.
The eighth pitch is the best fastball of the at-bat. Scherzer runs it under Senzel’s hands, but the kid shows some serious moxie by spoiling it foul. It might seem like nothing to keep fouling these off, but remember that Senzel is a rookie and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer in his pissed off final form. It’s a big moment and Senzel is hanging in there.
The ninth pitch of the at-bat almost seems like a mistake; did he really want to leave a changeup belt high like this? Maybe he did. Scherzer is an amazing pitcher and absolutely can read swings and intent from the batter.
Senzel swings right through the changeup — no doubt it looked just like a fastball off the mound — to bring Scherzer one out from stranding Barnhart.
What happens next is pure magic, as tremendous a scene as you’ll ever see. Scherzer knows he’s at a high pitch count — 117, to be exact. The Senzel at-bat was a lot of work, and he correctly assumes his manager will want to pull him to get the final out of the eighth with the bullpen.
But one does not simply pull Max Scherzer from a game he does not wish to leave.
Nationals TV color commentator F.P. Santangelo noted that Martinez had absolutely no chance to remove Scherzer here, and perhaps all he really wanted to do was give his ace a breather before he faced the final batter of the inning, Joey Votto. I suspect that’s the case, but make no mistake, the ace gets a big say in the matter.
After Martinez strolls back to the dugout, the broadcast shows Scherzer huffing and puffing on the mound. His intensity cannot be overstated as he a spins a curveball over the inside corner for a called strike one. Votto’s reaction suggests he didn’t read this well.
Wasting little time, Scherzer goes upstairs with a fastball well out of the zone … but he gets the call. This obviously upsets Votto, rightfully so. It’s a huge gift for the pitcher and tilts the at-bat heavily in Scherzer’s favor.
Max Scherzer’s 120th pitch of the day is a brilliantly located fastball that dots the outside corner. Paint it, black. Indeed. This is a badass pitch, a 97 MPH heater that locks up one of the more patient and disciplined hitters in modern baseball history. He never had a chance.
Note Scherzer’s brief glare as he exits the mound. I love that dude.
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.
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.
Castillo misses with a second fastball, belt-high and away.
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.
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.
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.
Who doesn’t love a slow-motion look at a K?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out the slomo on that bad boy:
Machado’s been around. He knows when he’s been had.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.