Ooohhh, you say to yourself as the 99 mph heater effortlessly pops the catcher’s glove.
Ahhhhh, you exclaim when the dizzying 88 mph changeup follows, fluttering past the lunging swing from a hapless sap.
When he’s right, watching Luis Castillo and his elite stuff is just about as satisfying as it can get when it comes to rooting for pitcher success. He’s not the kind of pitcher who’ll drop any of six different pitches on a batter, using confusion and variety to outsmart them - rather, his combination of unhittable pitches that come out of the hand looking exactly alike depends on a mastery of deception.
(Of course, it helps that even when hitter guess correctly on which offering they’re getting, the pitch is almost always still filthy enough to get the job done.)
It’s an arsenal that has brought Castillo and the Cincinnati Reds success. A career 3.84 ERA after 107 starts in the uniform is good enough for a 119 ERA+, with some down-ballot Rookie of the Year votes and an All Star appearance already to his name. Still, there’s an overriding subtext to Castillo’s career so far, one that makes it seem almost rare that you ever actually see a guy put up a ‘3.84 ERA kind of start.’
He’s streaky. Sometimes frustratingly streaky, sometimes astonishingly streaky, and despite the fact that there’s enough rock solid talent in his right arm to continue to hope he puts it all together for an entire season, he’s already shown that’s not going to be in 2021.
After being shelled for 8 ER in just 3.1 IP on Opening Day against the St. Louis Cardinals, Castillo mostly replicated that frustrating form through his first 10 starts of the year, his 7.61 ERA at that point in the season the single worst mark by any qualified starter in all of baseball. It was reminiscent of the start to his 2018 campaign, one where he was lit up for a 7.85 ERA through his first 6 starts of the year, or the rough 5.55 ERA he carried over his final 8 starts of the 2019 season as any chance of a playoff-push disintegrated.
Viewed in a vacuum, it’s become a frustrating reality. Despite his immense talent and the good certainly outweighing the bad, it seems that there are still stretches where things are just going to have the wheels come off for awhile. This time, though, it might be time to view that all with a sense of optimism.
The 2021 Cincinnati Reds are surging, having won 5 in a row and risen to 4 games over the .500 mark, sitting alone in 2nd place in the National League Central. And if Luis Castillo has already had his annual streak of being socked around and put it behind him, that means these Reds have already stomached the kind of run of form from their would-be ace that could send a season sideways if it happened down the stretch run.
After 2018’s miserable beginning, Castillo turned into one of the best 2nd-half starters in the game, pitching to a 2.63 ERA over his final 14 starts that year (and a dazzling 1.09 ERA over his final 5). While there’s admittedly a very, very long way to go in this 2021 campaign, we’ve already begun to see Castillo turn the page again this time, too - he owns a 3.23 ERA in 9 starts since his 11 K game against the San Francisco Giants on May 18th when he was deemed ‘very close’ to being right, and owns a 2.13 ERA and minuscule .509 OPS against in his last 6 times on the bump.
One of these years, we may well see him put together 30 starts of the best of Luis Castillo, and we’d almost certainly see the trophy case fill up because of it. That won’t be in 2021, of course, though that’s hopefully due to what we’ve already seen from him, not because of some ticking time-bomb of inevitability down the stretch. If Luis has turned his annual corner already, he might well end up the steamboat the Reds ride down the stretch towards a playoff spot, too.
It sure seems to be trending that way, at least. He’ll take the mound in Kansas City tonight to put it back on display.