(Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)
With every annual launch of Pitcher List, tradition demands a GIF Breakdown waiting to be unwrapped as we begin our coverage for the season ahead. The question of who to feature this year had an easy answer, as I’ve been enamored with Cincinnati Reds pitcher Luis Castillo ever since watching the first four pitches of his MLB career. There’s plenty of excitement swirling around the 25-year-old – I have him ranked at #20 in today’s Top 20 Starting Pitchers for 2018 – and indulge me as I ramble for 3,500 words about why I believe he can be a fantasy ace for years to come.
I debated about the best format to present Castillo in this article. Should I pick select pitches from all 15 of his starts? Break down each pitch in his repertoire? Separate his mechanics, sequencing, and stuff individually? While considering these options I was watching his final start of the season – a September 6th game against the Milwaukee Brewers – and I realized it was all here. I’m going to take you through the outing, detailing elements as they surface, and do my best Bob Ross impression as we paint a portrait of Luis Castillo together.
Castillo’s first batter was Hernan Perez and there’s plenty I want to talk about already. First, let’s look at his opening two pitches:
The first pitch here isn’t so bad, but what I want you to focus on are his mechanics in both pitches. Castillo pulls himself toward first-base during his delivery in the first pitch (resulting in a tugged heater away), then makes the adjustment to stay geared toward the plate for longer, earning himself strike one at a cool 99mph.
That’s a mature adjustment from a young pitcher. We’ll see Castillo make the former mechanical flaw a good amount in this start, but seeing him not only recognize the problem but quickly adjust it makes me confident he can eradicate it as he gets more experience in the bigs.
After missing inside with a 1-1 changeup that featured a ton of ride, Castillo ended the at-bat with two heaters north of 97mph:
There’s so much to break down here on just two pitches. After the slow 87mph 1-1 pitch, Perez was plenty late on the 2-1 heater, while he also found himself lunging at the pitch as he was looking more inside. Now with two strikes and noticing how late Perez was on the previous 98mph, Castillo aimed to jam him with more heat, getting a second chance to nail the spot he wanted to hit at 2-1. He executed, and with a touch of tail as well he earned a flailing strikeout as Perez was clearly looking for another changeup (he never lifted his front foot). Castillo has already claimed his first victim.
One out in the books, Castillo missed with an 0-0 up-and-away to Neil Walker and then had the confidence to throw a 1-0 down the pipe…
That’s a problem. It’s a terrible pitch and while Castillo can often get away with mistakes like this with his heat and movement, this was a massive meatball, especially in a hitter’s 1-0 count. Remember this pitch, though. We’re going to talk about it again down the road.
Castillo responds by pumping a 97mph heater over the plate for a foul ball to Ryan Braun, then executes a changeup that should make any pitching fan tremble:
Let’s review what you just saw: Near 10mph difference from strike one, starts off the plate before gliding back, clips the edge of the low-outside corner, and sends the count to 0-2. It’s the perfect pitch.
So what do you throw now? Common convention dictates heat inside as it changes both speed and location, but Castillo wanted to flex his muscles in the first. He tried a slider away – it floated off the plate – then a fastball at 99mph, but it wasn’t close enough to get the call nor a budge from Braun. He tried spotting the changeup at 2-2, but it curled back over the plate and Bruan slapped it foul down the third base line. Despite failing to put Braun away three pitches later, there is still an air of confidence with Castillo, that as long as he executes any pitch, it would do the job.
Here’s what he went with:
It’s not even a well-executed pitch, but by cycling through his repertoire, it forced Braun to not rule out any pitch. Out of Castillo’s hand, two of three pitches would make the ball curl back to the outside edge, forcing Braun’s commitment early. Unfortunately for the Milwaukee outfielder, it was a biting slider that fell far away from the plate and Castillo already has two strikeouts.
You should be getting a sense of how Castillo makes batters uncomfortable in the box. It’s not easy hitting against upper 90s with life. Nor a changeup that looks identical out of the hand with exaggerated movement. Or a slider that moves in the opposite direction of the two pitches you’re gearing up for.
The best chance for hitters is to be aggressive and hope to connect on a heater over the middle of the plate early. It’s what Neil Walker did for his longball and what Travis Shaw did to lace a double to center (which Billy Hamilton probably should have caught):
I’m in favor of Castillo throwing a pitch like this 0-0 over missing a pitch wildly outside of the strike zone, but this will be a common occurrence if he can’t keep his heater along the edges of plate.
Well, not that common as he pounded a fastball in nearly the same spot to Domingo Santana for a called first strike:
Now set-up 0-1, Castillo tries to do what may be my favorite move – throwing an inside changeup after establishing a fastball. He doesn’t execute it as intended, but the pitch looks identical to the 98mph prior before falling into the dirt for an easy swing-and-a-miss:
Now what do you throw? The world is your oyster and with Santana greatly fooled by the slow ball, Castillo sped it up again, repeating the strike one pitch to end the inning:
Santana was confounded. He saw three pitches that looked exactly the same out of Castillo’s hand, but had no idea what pitch was coming. It’s not easy facing Castillo.
We’ve made it to the second inning and the fun keeps coming. Check out these two pitches against Stephen Vogt, a 1-0 changeup and 2-1 fastball for a flyout:
First of all, a 1-0 changeup down the middle of the plate shows plenty of confidence and I love it, which I’m saying plenty but I can’t emphasize it enough as a major indication of maturity for a young arm. Normally prospect pitchers turn to their fastball or in some cases a breaking whenever they are in trouble, but for Castillo to be comfortable pitching backward with his changeup displays a flexibility that makes him difficult to predict.
Back to the actual at-bat, Vogt wasn’t expecting a 1-0 changeup and barely got a piece of it as his weight was shifted well before the ball arrived. While he did send the 2-1 fastball for a ride, Vogt still had that 1-0 changeup in his mind – located in nearly the same spot -which could have been the difference between this out and a 2nd run for the Brewers.
And sometimes Castillo doesn’t even need more than his heater to get by. Watch him sit down Orlando Arcia with a combination of four-seamers and two-seamers, all equally impressive on velocity, movement, and location (and in that order):
The excitement calms down a little in the third, with an easy at-bat against opposing pitcher Matt Garza that doesn’t feature Castillo’s best command, but a slider off the plate results in a seemingly inevitable out. Castillo continued to struggle a little with his command against Hernan Perez, throwing three straight balls after a solid 0-0 changeup for a strike, but he made the adjustment, confidently fired a fastball that tailed middle-in, and Perez slapped it to third for a groundout. Nothing too remarkable here and let’s move on.
Now facing Neil Walker a second time, Castillo wisens up. He gets to a 1-1 count with a poorly thrown slider in the dirt and a 1-0 changeup over the plate, then places this beautiful slider:
All Walker wants to see is another heater to send to the seats. He’s hungry, hoping to see anything that comes close to the same fastball from the first inning. That slider looked like for a long time before diving inside and under his bat. But surely after three secondary pitches, the fourth will be a heater, right?
After flexing his muscles with only his heat to end the second, Castillo showcased his ability to use only his secondary pitches to get the same result. Beautiful.
Castillo opens the fourth with yet another well-executed changeup early in the count for a whiff against Ryan Braun, then just misses with an 0-1 slider:
I actually really like this pitch and I think it’s close to the ideal from Castillo. If he can spot it here consistently, it opens up two-strike possibilities as well as adding another weapon to play with his fastball. Too often the slide piece finishes well out of the zone and nibbling like this – even if it doesn’t actually land inside the strikezone – is an improvement to the current state of the pitch.
At 1-1, Castillo blazes a heater on the outer half that Braun barely touches and dribbles foul. Now Braun has seen everything in Castillo’s repertoire in three pitches and he has no idea what to expect. What he gets it a heavy fastball at 99mph right at the knees that he just doesn’t know what to do with:
Travis Shaw followed and Castillo is in full control. Watch him feature all three pitches that look identical on release (delivered inside the same “tunnel”) but move differently to make Shaw’s life a nightmare:
The first pitch darted back over the plate, the second fell under the bat and at an 11mph difference, and the third dropped further still, landing in the dirt as Shaw didn’t know what else he was supposed to do. There are very few batters in the majors that would have been able to resist that final slider.
But it’s not just the strikeouts that mark me impressed. Little things like watching Domingo Santana slam this pitch into the ground and at the second baseman despite missing his spot and peeling out toward the middle of the zone:
Castillo has the stuff to send batters back to the dugout constantly, but to see his mistake pitches turn into outs is just icing on the cake. Batters have an easier time getting six-year deals in the off-season than making solid contact against Luis Castillo.
I could probably stop this article right now, but that wouldn’t be fun at all. We have three more innings to go and it just gets better.
The first out came off the bat of Stephen Vogt, who grounded back to Castillo after he couldn’t handle a 96mph sinker with plenty of horizontal action and drop:
That’s an excellent pitch to generate a quick at-bat, much needed for Castillo as he neared the 60 pitch mark. I would like to highlight previous pitch in the at-bat though, at not for a good reason:
This is pitch is supposed to sit along the inside corner, maybe clip the bottom edge, possibly land just under and entice a swing from Vogt, but the pitch did neither as it never looked like a strike from the moment of release. It was a consistent issue across this game and is the primary flaw that I’d love to see Castillo fix. If he can get a firm grasp of commanding his slider, it would make it tougher for batters to sit for a mistake fastball and could be the facet to propel him into Top 15 SP territory.
Back to the game, Castillo allowed his third hit of the day to Keon Broxton on an infield dribbler, but before that he gave us this beauty at 97mph:
I don’t need to add anything here. That is as gorgeous of a two-seamer as you’ll see.
After a flyout from Arcia, Castillo had one of the more fun at-bats of the game. His first two pitches to Jett Bandy got him ahead quickly, first with a well-placed fastball on the inside corner, then a heater away that dove under Bandy’s bat:
But then Castillo faltered. He spiked a changeup in the dirt, then wasted a slider well off the plate that instantly turned the count to 2-2. He didn’t execute nearly as well as we’ve seen before, but Castillo was able to reset and focus on setting up Bandy a second time. He tried a fastball inside, but it peeled to the middle and Bandy fouled it off:
Instead of turning away from his fastball, Tucker Barnhart ordered another inside fastball from Castillo. I love it. “You messed up, but you got a free pass. I trust you to make the adjustment and execute the pitch this time.” Here’s that second attempt:
Now we’re back where we started, like it’s 0-2 again after two fastballs over the plate and just like before Barnhart calls the same pitch – changeup inside. And Castillo nails it:
It might sound like I’m romanticizing this, and you could be right, but you should have heard the sounds I made when Bandy struck out. If you’re like me, you’re watching Castillo pitch, rooting for a young pitcher dripping with talent to live up to his potential and in one at-bat we saw him fail, pick himself back up, and get the job done. How could you not be romantic about that?
Another great at-bat from Castillo beginning the sixth as he zoomed a 1-0 pitch on the outside corner for strike one and followed it up with his fantastic outside corner changeup:
It’s just too easy to find beautiful pitches in this game. What may be even more impressive is how this pitch not only got the swing-and-miss but then set-up the riding 1-2 fastball on the inside corner that creating a broken-bat grounder to third:
It’s textbook and it’s coming easily. Next!
Returning to the plate is Neil Walker and you’ll remember his previous two at-bats, one featuring a gohperball off a middle-middle heater, the other a strikeout on four secondary pitches. So what does Castillo do? Right back with the heat as he gets Walker into an 0-2 hole with two great fastballs:
This just remarkable. The first pitch is a four-seamer that may have possibly been a touch inside, but didn’t have a whole lot of tailing action on it and Castillo got the call. The following pitch starts farther inside and Walker thinks it’s a four-seamer destined to be called a ball, but it’s actually a two-seamer and gets a ton of horizontal ride to whip into the zone for strike two. It’s been a battle between the two all day and Castillo just got ahead with the pitches Walker wanted to see.
The rest of the bat wasn’t particularly remarkable, though Walker did fight off a slider and changeup to get what he wanted – a fastball over the plate – hitting a screaming one-hopper at the shortstop for an out. Castillo got away with one, but kept it low enough to give him a chance to get an out and it went his way.
The final out of the inning came off the bat of Ryan Braun, who saw a pair of sliders, hitting the first weakly foul, the second a chopper to third for the clean out:
It doesn’t seem like an at-bat to highlight, but I was glad to see Castillo improve his slider command. The 0-0 pitch was perfectly executed, expecting Braun to be aggressive and locating a slider not over the plate, but close enough to the zone to induce a swing. The second slider wasn’t ideal – it landed on the wrong side of the plate – but its height is everything Castillo wants in the pitch, earning the groundout and a walk to the dugout. Six frames are done and we’re only at 85 pitches!
The seventh featured just eight pitches from Castillo, with two groundouts earned early in counts with two-seamers running back over the inside corner to lefites Travis Shaw and Stephen Vogt. Impressive in their own right, though as I try to not GIF up the entire game for this article, and I’ll save that for the fun part of the inning, his debilitation of Domingo Santana in four pitches.
Let’s get to the 1-2 count. Castillo threw a perfect 0-0 slider to open the at-bat that Santana couldn’t help but swing through, though my excitement for his execution was diminished by the second pitch was another slider that bounced in the opposite batter’s box. He came back with a 98mph heater at the bottom of the zone that was chipped foul and now Santana has no idea what’s coming. Is it another fastball? Inside? Outside? I haven’t seen his changeup yet, is that coming? Or maybe a slider that I already whiffed on?
It was as if Santana hadn’t made up his mind yet and the pitch was already past him. When you have confidence with three different pitches, hold elite velocity, and can execute across the plate, these things happen.
The eighth and final inning wasn’t nearly as glorious as the seven prior. Castillo was a bit gassed as he passed the 100 pitch mark, featuring fastballs slightly under 96mph a few times in the frame. However, he got through it with just one hit to his name while giving us two pitches that you should see.
The first was this 99mph heater to Orlando Arcia that was…well, amazing:
Not only is the movement across the entirety of the plate paired with 99mph velocity impressive, but I was surprised to see Castillo could still dial it up this deep in the game. As mentioned, he did slow down as the inning continued, but to still be able to rear back and give us 99mph was remarkable.
The last pitch of Castillo’s day was one that I’ve been pushing this entire article:
It was an 0-2 slider off the plate that’s close enough to the zone to induce a swing. There really isn’t a more poetic way to close Castillo’s marvelous rookie season. I wasn’t a blazing fastball, nor a fading changeup the hugs the corner, but an exhibition of what would make Castillo complete if he were able to express it consistently over a full season.
As always, I want to make sure the pros and cons of each player are understood. There are faults in Luis Castillo and it’s important to recognize them: his fastball can leak out to the middle of the plate, his mechanics still need a bit of work for consistently driving toward the plate and not yanking pitches, and his slider has room to grow to be the proper third pitch he needs. With these flaws, a successful 2018 campaign is in no way a guaranteed success. At the same time, more innings at the major level could help squash these flaws, and his skill set is already high enough to keep him well afloat until he’s fully polished.
And let me gush a little more about that repertoire because it really is something special. I adore his confidence to pound the zone with fastballs, and why shouldn’t he? With his elite velocity, he can get away with mistake pitches more His sinker has developed plenty of aggressive horizontal and sinking action at high 90s velocity and will induce plenty of poor contact and weak swings. I can see him using the pitch as his primary strike-getter while saving his four-seamer for elevated pitches in deeper counts or when he’s losing his feel for his sinker. His changeup is as elite of a complement to his sinker as you’ll find, looking exactly the same as his sinker (spin, initial movement, and release) but coming in at a startling 10mph difference and exaggerated life. To see Castillo hold no fear featuring the pitch inside to right-handers is an absolute joy, showcasing his ability to mix-and-match pitches in any count across the plate. There is work to be done with his slider, though if Castillo can be more consistent executing his slider, the pitch can be a fantastic pitch to keep batters off the fastball/changeup combination while also acting as a chase pitch.
Castillo’s velocity, movement, and solid three-pitch repertoire make for a firm bedrock for a 25-year-old entering his first full year in the majors. Some may scoff at Castillo’s small sample size in the bigs, or maybe his 8.9% walk rate last season, but looking at these numbers alone don’t tell the whole tale. There is an exceptional talent here and you might want to get on this train before it leaves the station.
Here’s one last GIF for the road – a small taste of what makes me enamored with Castillo as he paints the inside corner at 97mph before placing a deadly changeup outside for the strikeout: