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Updating the Top 100: Luis Castillo

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MLB: Wild Card-Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

A bunch of years ago, I wrote a series of player capsules in which I attempted to rank the top 100 players in Cincinnati Reds history. Trying to balance career totals, peak quality, and consistency of performance, I made a list and have subsequently updated that list. The most current ranking is linked here. The next several days will provide my 2020 updates, including any “honorable mention” players (think top 250 or so). Any disagreements with the existing list or updates should be directed to Wick.

Major League Baseball has a long history with such remarkable continuity that it’s kind of jarring when there’s a break in the chain. We’ve had previous seasons end early due to world war, had seasons end early or start late due to labor/management conflicts, and now can add a global pandemic to the list of interrupters.

The National League began in 1876. Cincinnati fielded one of the inaugural teams, and the Red Stockings won just nine of their 65 games. Listen, honey. When you finish a 65 game season 42.5 games back of first place, that’s a pretty bad year. The next year, the NL housed only six teams and the Reds finished last again, with a 15-42 record.

One hundred forty three years later, the Reds played a regular season with just two more games than that ancient 1877 campaign. Only two seasons in the last 130 prior to 2020 saw fewer than 120 games. The point, simply, is that we just played Twitter-era baseball in Reconstruction-era quantities. It’s weird.

To the purposes of this post, 2020 creates a bit of a sticky problem for someone who likes to think and write about baseball history. In a heavily truncated season, there are two extreme viewpoints from which to process a player’s accomplishments:

1) The stats are what they are, with no effort made to extrapolate stats over the missing 102 games of the 2020 season.

2) Multiply each player’s stats by 2.7, so as to approximate his value over a typical full season.

Both are inherently problematic when trying to create links across history. In 2019, Anthony Desclafani pitched 166 innings with a 3.89 ERA (120 ERA+). Pretty good season overall, good for 2.7 bWAR. In 2020, Trevor Bauer was arguably the best pitcher in the National League, with a 1.73 ERA (276 ERA+) over 73 innings. That’s the 6th most innings pitched in the NL in 2020, by the way. His bWAR was…also 2.7.

So were Disco ’19 and Bauer ’20 of equal value, in terms of pushing their respective teams towards a pennant? Clearly not. But how comfortable are you with rewarding Bauer with the equivalent of a 7+ WAR (i.e., better than Johnny Cueto’s sublime 2014 season)? In my opinion, we should be conservative when it comes to rewarding players credit for games that never happened. My personal solution is to split the difference, extrapolating stats to halfway between the actual season and a theoretical full season. For 2020, that means assuming a 111 game season, or roughly double what each player’s raw ledger shows for the season. It’s not perfect, but neither is any other solution to this question.

Luis Castillo demonstrates this statistical pickle quite well. 2020 was his best season on a rate basis (148 ERA), and his worst season on a bWAR basis. The aforementioned partial extrapolation helps correct for some of this discrepancy.

The story on Castillo’s 2020 season is pretty simple, honestly. He traded homeruns (fewer homeruns on a rate basis than previously in his career) for doubles (allowing more doubles per at-bat than ever before). There’s some real gains at work: La Piedra has undergone the requisite strikeout rate increase that’s pervading the baseball universe. And he’s inducing more groundballs than ever before. His HR/FB rate, however, dropped to such a low rate that one supposes it was probably unsustainable over a full season.

Luis Castillo: Pre 2020 vs. 2020

Season HR/AB 2B/AB K/9 GB/FB HR/FB
Season HR/AB 2B/AB K/9 GB/FB HR/FB
2017-19 3.70% 4.70% 9.8 1.11 12.40%
2020 1.90% 6.80% 11.4 1.41 7.10%

But yet. Maybe. Castillo definitely threw a sinker more in 2020 than ever before, with his fastball seeing the largest reduction in usage. To my eyes, that accompanied a faster fastball than Castillo had previously thrown. If he can consistently profile as a groundball pitcher who can casually hit 98 with a 4-seamer to keep hitters honest…well, there are good times ahead.

As a mostly irrelevant aside, I’m not a fan of the designated hitter and definitely don’t advocate for its permanent residence in the National League, even if the hometown club is generally well positioned to take advantage. I don’t have any particularly strong reasoning against the DH…I just like for there to be an actual problem being addressed if a structural change is implemented. All that said, I never once in 2020 got even a little bit sentimental about the absence of a Luis Castillo plate appearance.

Over four seasons with the Reds, Luis Castillo is 32-33, with a 3.62 ERA (124 ERA+) over 519.7 innings, recording 578 strikeouts and 423 hits allowed. He debuts on the all-time player list at #232.