Cincinnati Reds: Concerns mounting for Luis Castillo

DETROIT, MI - JULY 31: Starting pitcher Luis Castillo #58 of the Cincinnati Reds is pulled by manager David Bell #25 of the Cincinnati Reds (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - JULY 31: Starting pitcher Luis Castillo #58 of the Cincinnati Reds is pulled by manager David Bell #25 of the Cincinnati Reds (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

Reds right-hander Luis Castillo has struggled to open the 2020 season.

The starting rotation of the Cincinnati Reds has been among the very best in 2020, however, one key member of the rotation has yet to find his groove. For the Reds to make a potentially deep playoff run, they’re going to need Luis Castillo to return to his former un-hittable self.

Through the first three months of the 2019 season, La Piedra was arguably one of the best pitchers in baseball. Earning his first All-Star selection, Castillo reached the mid-point of last year with an 8-3 record and a sparkling 2.29 ERA in 18 starts. He was so dominating, the 27-year-old Dominican was named the National League Pitcher of the Month for April.

Unfortunately, following a flawless performance in an inning of work at the Midsummer Classic, the results have been anything but All-Star worthy. Luis Castillo got hit hard throughout the second half of 2019 and it’s continued into his 2020 campaign.

Tossing 106 innings in the first half of last year, Castillo allowed just nine home runs while holding opponents to an anemic .276 slugging rate. Those numbers dramatically shifted in the wrong direction following the All-Star break.

In his 14 starts to close the 2019 season, Castillo compiled a 4.78 ERA. However, one problem was the increase of his pitches leaving the ballpark. Hurling 84.2 frames, La Piedra surrendered 14 round-trippers and opponents slugging rate spiked as well.

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Opposing hitters slugged almost 150 points higher producing a .419 mark through the final three months of the 2019 season off the Cincinnati Reds right-hander.

As Reds Country has witnessed, Castillo’s problems have continued to begin the 2020 campaign. Through his first three starts of the season, even though he’s allowed just one long ball, opponents have produced a .269/.324./.403 slash line. Those numbers are nowhere near ace material. Even more troubling has been the number of batters reaching base against Castillo.

His current WHIP of 1.412 is the fourth-highest among NL starters while his hits allowed of 9.5 per nine innings ranks fifth from the bottom. Where exactly is the disconnect from the dominant La Piedra of old? Let’s dive a little deeper into the numbers.

Per FanGraphs, Castillo is using his slider just 15.3% of the time in 2020 compared to 16.9% usage last year, even though it’s best his most effective pitch this year with a 1.5 above-average pitch value rate. However, the most shocking number has been the ineffectiveness of his changeup, which is widely considered Castillo’s best weapon.

Luis Castillo’s changeup in 2019 was the best in the NL according to FanGraphs accumulating 29.4 runs above average ranking. His nearest competitor ,Hyun-Jin Ryu, produced a distant 22.2 rate. To put Castillo’s devastating changeup in perspective, only the Cardinals Jack Flaherty had a better pitch value as his fastball was 32.8 above league average.

However, La Piedra’s changeup has been well-below subpar to begin this season. Currently, his pitch value on his changeup ranks -1.4 below the NL standard starter using the pitch. Another interesting nugget regarding his changeup is that Castillo is throwing it harder than ever. The 88.8-MPH average is well above the 87.3 mph rate he was tossing it last year.

I’m not going to pretend to be a pitching coach, but Derek Johnson and Luis Castillo have to find a way to utilize his best pitch more effectively. Tuesday night’s start against the Kansas City Royals will be huge for La Piedra and likely a harbinger of things to come for his 2020 season.

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The Royals are the second-worst hitting team in the American League against the changeup, according to FanGraphs.  Expect to see Luis Castillo challenging the Royals early and often with his best pitch. If Castillo can’t find success with his changeup tomorrow night, the 2020 ride could be a bumpy one for him and Reds County alike.