Yesterday’s series opener between the Cincinnati Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks has become today’s series opener between the two, as a potent weather system created both a bizarre scene on the mound in GABP late Tuesday evening and a postponement until later this evening. Thanks to a timely dinger by Kyle Farmer, though, there is no decision waiting in the balance for one Luis Castillo, the Reds starter for the game.
The Reds would-be burgeoning ace had yet another frustrating game on the mound, one that had him off it soon enough to not factor into the win/loss column. He did record 12 outs on the night, was both bailed out and bailed in by his defense, and scattered 7 hits and 3 walks in that time. An early error cost the Reds 2 runs that weren’t charged to him, but after 4 starts in the books now this year, the team’s Opening Day starter is the owner of an ugly 6.05 ERA.
If it were only the ERA that were concerning, that’d be one thing. It’s not, though, as he’s seen concurrent spikes in FIP (4.67, up from 2.65 last year), WHIP (1.65, well off his career 1.18 mark), and average exit velocity (91 mph, up from 86 mph last year), too. And if you side-eye the 7 innings of scoreless, 4 hit ball he put up against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates on April 7th (who were without Ke’Bryan Hayes), Castillo has surrendered 22 hits, 5 walks, and an unsightly 17 runs (13 earned) in 12.1 IP this year.
There are two pertinent points to be made here while politely grimacing at those objective numbers. For one, it’s been downright frustrating conditions for Luis in at least three of his four starts this year, the lone exception being his April 7th gem against Pittsburgh where it was 77 degrees at first pitch. Opening Day, when he was shelled by St. Louis, was 37 degrees and windy. A low 50’s first pitch in his outing against San Francisco came with the classic bone-chilling Bay Area wind (at 19 mph at first pitch), while yesterday’s game against Arizona featured early rain that turned to sleet before snow by the time it was called. We’ve seen before that cold weather and Castillo don’t exactly love each other, and his career April ERA, WHIP, and K/9 all rank among his worst by month.
Secondly, comparing anything he’s done so far this year to 2020 stats runs into some one-for-one problems, too. He didn’t pitch in April last year, or any early season cold weather, since the coronavirus pandemic pushed the start of the season into the hot months of summer. Beyond that, no pitcher was trying to make it through a 162 game schedule, and velocity spikes for starting pitchers did just that across the board last year - they spiked, with Castillo’s 97.5 mph average fastball velocity well up from both 2021 so far (95.7) and his 2019 average (96.5).
All of that aside, Luis is still throwing the ball a lot less hard this year than in previous years. Part of that is apparently by design, as the usage of his electric change-up is at a career-high by a significant margin, as the chart below from Baseball Savant indicates.
Without knowing the precise onus of that diversion, it’s hard to truly make a firm decision on this. Is this a tactical decision that was made prior to the season, with a mix of the four-seamer and change to be leaned on much more than the sinker and slider? Or, is it an indication that his sinker/slider combo isn’t working and he’s having to abandon them in an effort to seek help from the only two pitches he trusts? Whichever it is, it’s come with an alarming drop in his strikeout rate, as his newfangled pitch mix has only fanned 17.8% of batters he has faced in 2021, down from 30.5% in the shortened 2020 season and 28.9% during his breakout 2019 campaign.
The good news is that there’s been nothing we’ve seen from Luis on the mound that looks like he’s laboring, or that he’s physically uncomfortable with the motions of throwing a baseball. His location has been off, and at times he’s looked uncomfortable with the environment around him - both the weather and the number of baserunners surrounding him for big pitches - but that’s something that hopefully can be mechanically improved.
I don’t think it’s anywhere near time to hit the panic button for the Reds, either. There’s ample evidence that Luis just sometimes hits a funk for a few starts, and there’s certainly enough to suggest he just hasn’t had the right series of conditions to truly find his groove yet this year. Hell, if anything, it’s a testament to the fabric of this current club that they’ve been able to go 9-6 through 15.75 games with Castillo struggling and Sonny Gray almost exclusively sidelined, especially when you factor in what other losses their pitching corps has seen since the end of the 2020 season.
Of course, he should have some pretty phenomenal weather for his next start, which is encouraging. He’ll have the robust warmth of sunny Southern California on his shoulders as he takes the mound on Monday in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Perfect place and opponent for a get-right game, no?