The first week of the Cincinnati Reds’ 2019 season has not gone as hoped. The team is 1-4, with each of the last three losses coming by just a single run. The lineup has been a disaster, especially the outfielders, with the team’s batting average of .167 somehow only being the third-worst in the majors. The Reds also have the majors’ third-worst BB/9 rate among their pitchers. The new starting pitchers, Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, had lackluster debuts with the team, and new outfielder Matt Kemp is just 1-for-12 with five strikeouts to start the season. Bright spots have been few and far between, and no player on the Reds has shined brighter in the first five games of the season than Luis Castillo.
Castillo, of course, had a sparkling rookie season in 2017, but didn’t take the step forwards hoped for in Year 2. He struck out fewer hitters, his velocity dipped, and his ERA+ fell from 144 to 97. He did, however, manage to finish 2018 on a demonstrative high note, holding a 1.09 ERA with 34 strikeouts and eight walks in 33 innings in the month of September. That display of potential helped lead Cincinnati to name Castillo the Opening Day starter last week, a leap of faith that clearly communicated the expectations the organization still has for the now 26-year-old right-hander.
He’s made just two starts so far in 2019, but in that short period of time, Castillo has looked as good as any pitcher in baseball. He’s allowed just two runs in 12.2 innings (1.42 ERA), struck out 17 hitters, and walked seven. He also hasn’t allowed a home run yet, an encouraging sign for a pitcher who surrendered 28 dingers in 2018. The sample size isn’t much, and it would be very premature to declare Castillo a finished product. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dig into what’s allowed him to so thoroughly dominate the first two teams he’s faced.
Any conversation about what’s made Castillo great over his first two starts must start with his change-up. He already had a spectacular one before this season, generating swings and misses with it at an elite rate. Here’s what that changeup looked like on Wednesday, in the first inning of a seven-inning, one-hit, nine-strikeout performance against the Milwaukee Brewers:
Luis Castillo's 4 Swing & Miss Changeups (in just the 1st inning). pic.twitter.com/uJ6VnCJlm9— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 3, 2019
And here’s what it looked like against the Pittsburgh Pirates on March 28:
According to Brooks Baseball, Castillo got 11 whiffs on his changeup in each of his first two starts of the season. He’s gotten 10 swings and misses on all of his other pitches combined. On a single-game basis, it isn’t necessarily the most dominant he’s ever been with the pitch — he had at least 11 whiffs three different times in 2018 — but it is a step forward in terms of the pitch’s overall excellence. After swing-and-miss rates of just over 43 percent against his changeup in 2017 and 2018, the same figure has climbed to 59.5 percent over his first 12.2 innings of this season. He’s leaned into those numbers, too, upping his changeup percentage from 26.4 last year to 31.1 this year.
Castillo hasn’t just improved his changeup, of course. He’s also limiting mistakes. In 2018, he finished in just the 35th percentile in exit velocity and 11th percentile in hard-hit percentage, a couple of disappointing numbers for a pitcher with the kind of stuff Castillo has. According to Statcast, nearly a quarter of the balls put in play against Castillo last year were line drives, and 8.8 percent of balls put in play against him were barreled, a rate more than two and a half times greater than the one he allowed in 2017.
The contact rates against Castillo were indicative of pitches that missed over the heart of the plate far too often. Here are a series of zone profiles from Castillo’s 2018 season:
In the top left zone, you can see that Castillo placed a combined 32 percent of his pitches in the center, low center, low and away and middle away. In the bottom right zone, you can see that those were the areas in which Castillo was hit the hardest. He was in the middle far too often, and allowed opponents to sit in one area of the zone and capitalize on him. Now, here are those same zones through his first two starts of 2019:
It’s just 12.2 short innings, but Castillo has stayed out of the middle. Yet again, he’s leaned into his strengths, staying at the knees and, more often, below them. According to Statcast, Castillo has thrown just 37.4 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, down from 50.9 a year ago. He’s forcing opponents to chase pitches at the same rate they did last year, but those hitters have made contact when chasing 14 percent less than they did a year ago. The effects of this approach, to this point, have been clear: Zero home runs, zero barrels, and just three hits allowed.
Again, this is all a very small sample. One bad game could make all of these figures match up more closely with the way they looked last year. But it has been encouraging to see Castillo eliminating some of the mistakes he was making a year ago, and just how dominant he can be when that happens. For someone who finished last April with a 7.85 ERA and a .900 OPS against him, it’s at least a much better start.