A Minors Obsession

Development is not linear

Every day throughout the year I focus on writing about, learning about, watching and reading about minor league baseball. I’ve been doing that, almost every day for the last 12 years. Yes, that probably makes me a crazy person. But it’s also led to learning things that when I first started writing about minor league baseball (way back in January of 2006), I wasn’t as tuned in with as I am now.

One of the bigger things that has become apparent is that the development of players isn’t a straight line. It’s not linear. For some guys, it is. Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw – the truly elite guys who reach the Major Leagues at 19-20-years-old, in this group of guys, you probably do see more of a linear development than you will anywhere else. Those guys, however, are the true outliers.

The rule, however, is that most guys have ups-and-downs as they develop. Most guys have ups-and-downs once they reach the Major Leagues. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but baseball is a game of adjustments. Ok, so you’ve probably all heard someone say that before, probably multiple times. It is these adjustments, though, that can be very key for the development of a player. And those adjustments and changes are things that I want to look at today, specifically in regards to two pitchers that are currently with the big league club.

Luis Castillo joined the Reds organization this past offseason. Robert Stephenson has been with the organization since they drafted him in the 1st round of 2011. Luis Castillo stepped right into the Major Leagues and saw success from the beginning. Robert Stephenson saw some real struggles in 2016 and the first half of 2017 as a big leaguer. The two players are almost the same age – born only three months apart. Their development, however, has been quite different.

Robert Stephenson was a big time prospect from day 1. He was a first round draft pick who got paid big money. For his entire career as a minor leaguer he was ranked among the organization’s top five prospects. Early in his career, the numbers were strong. Once he reached Double-A things began to take a step backwards, particularly with his control. That is the point in which the real adjustments started to happen for the right hander.

When he was drafted, Robert Stephenson had a 4-seam fastball, a split-fingered change up and a curveball. The organization made him drop the splitter and focus on a more standard change up immediately. He stuck with that for a few years, but the pitch never really got to the point that it was a successful offering. In Double-A he began to tinker with a 2-seam fastball as well as a split-fingered fastball again. The velocity dropped as a result, but the splitter became a strong pitch almost immediately. The control, however, was still a bit of an issue.

Eventually the 2-seamer experiment went away and he began to throw the 4-seamer again. The control, however, didn’t show much improvement. For Robert Stephenson, the ability, or inability to throw strikes consistently has been the biggest thing holding him back. However, it wasn’t the only thing. The team felt he needed to alter his stuff, too. He scrapped multiple pitches along the way. He picked up a pitch in the minors.

And then 2017 came and the Reds made a decision to place Robert Stephenson in the bullpen to begin the year. When he pitched on a regular basis, he was actually successful. But he too often went 4+ days between relief appearances and when that happened he got absolutely lit up. After two months the team decided he needed more consistent work and sent him back to Triple-A where he started every five days.

While the consistent work certainly helped, the team also told him that he needed to throw more strikes. And he absolutely did. In 40.1 innings for the Bats he walked just 13 batters and he struck out 45. The control was improving, but that was just one change he was making. While down in Triple-A he was also in the process of developing a slider, too.

If you’ve been watching Robert Stephenson since he returned to the Major Leagues in late July you’ve probably noticed the pitch. It’s essentially replaced his curveball. Between 2016 and the first half of 2017 in the Major Leagues, he had thrown his curveball 20% of the time and a slider just 4% of the time. Since his return his curveball has been thrown only 3% of the time and his slider has been thrown 28% of the time. And the results have followed, too.

Things aren’t there yet for him. He will still battle control at times, and that’s going to be worth keeping an eye on. But, what we have seen are the improvements. We’ve seen the development. And it’s been a long process that’s been full of ups-and-downs over the years.

For Luis Castillo, it’s been a very different journey. He signed with the San Francisco Giants as a 19-year-old with little fanfare. Despite his advanced age, the Giants placed him in the Dominican Summer League for both of his first two seasons. He was successful in limited action, but worked out of the bullpen in both seasons.

At age 21 the Giants finally brought him to the United States and got aggressive, pushing him right past rookie ball and throwing him into Low-A. Once again as a reliever he was successful, but for the third year in a row was not among the organization’s Top 30 prospects according to Baseball America.

Following that season he was traded to the Miami Marlins for Casey McGehee. The Marlins sent Castillo, now 22-years-old, back to the same Low-A league that he had played in the year prior, despite posting a 3.07 ERA with 25 walks and 66 strikeouts in 58.2 innings pitched. Through both April and May he worked exclusively out of the bullpen, but he was throwing multiple innings more often than he wasn’t. Only two outings were more than 2.0 innings, though.

That June, however, he moved into the starting rotation for the first time in his life and he saw immediate success, statistically. He would make seven starts before being promoted to the Florida State League. His ERA was good, 3.50 the rest of the season, but his strikeout rate took a big dip, falling off 30% from where it was before.

The transition had begun, but it wasn’t quite a smooth one. The next year he returned to the Florida State League and the numbers improved quite a bit. The walk rate, which had always been good, became elite. His strikeout rate improved over the year prior, but it was still a bit lower than you’d like to see. He even earned a late season promotion to Double-A where he threw 14.0 innings.

After that season he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. When he was acquired, the scouting reports basically said this: Blazing fastball, slider with plus potential but it’s currently inconsistent, and a feel for a change up that could be average. The report sounded good, and the numbers the previous year were strong.

The Reds sent Luis Castillo to Double-A Pensacola to begin the year. While there things began to change. All of a sudden, his change up which was considered easily the worst of his three offerings began to improve. Before you knew it the change up was being labeled as a plus pitch. That’s a significant jump for a pitch to take in a very short amount of time.

As a result of that newly developed plus change up the strikeouts followed. In bunches. The now 24-year-old posted a 2.58 ERA in 80.1 innings for the Blue Wahoos with 81 strikeouts. He then skipped right over Triple-A and joined the Reds rotation and barely skipped a beat. In 15 starts with the Reds he threw 89.1 innings with a 3.12 ERA, 32 walks and 98 strikeouts.

Both players took very different roads from where they were at the beginning of their careers to the point that they are at today. Robert Stephenson experienced more ups-and-downs than Luis Castillo did, but both guys saw their development change throughout their career. It wasn’t a straight line to success. There were some hiccups along the way. There were changes made for each over the years. The odds are that as they both continue to move forward with their careers that more changes will be made.

While it is great when you get a player who steps into the professional ranks and doesn’t have any set backs along the way to stardom, that’s incredibly rare. Even guys like Joey Votto had some stops along the way that made him re-evaluate and change his game. It takes time and many adjustments along the way for the very large majority of players. While the Reds rebuild isn’t going fast enough for everyone, we are starting to see the possible light at the end of the tunnel late in 2017 with some of the young players stepping up. It’s worth remembering that progression and development isn’t linear and that it’s going to be a process that takes time for most players. Patience is a virtue, my friends.

30 thoughts on “Development is not linear

  1. I hope everyone who read the Fangraphs article about Cingrani the other day comes and reads this article about the Reds working with and developing Castillo as well as continuing to develop Stephenson. A great piece, and a useful reminder that while the Reds don’t hit a home run with every player, the fault doesn’t always belong entirely to the Reds, because they’re working with their guys as well and developing them. (See Suarez as well)

    • I always like Cingrani’s intensity and just figured the Reds knew something I didn’t. I knew I had read he had success throwing his slider in the past- not sure why he quit throwing for the Reds. Maybe it will not come to anything, but his control had drastically improved and not sure why it takes another organization to figure out that you should throw another pitch more than 3% of the time.. bit as the article
      https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/analysis-might-have-saved-tony-cingrani/
      relates- “the Dodgers as an organization are among the most sophisticated in the league. They were certainly positioned to tell Cingrani more about himself than the Reds, who continue to lag behind.”

      • The Reds have not been secretive about pushing Cingrani to learn a new pitch/change his pitch mix and improve control. Did the Dodgers have some good info that convinced him to change effectively? Perhaps. It feels just as likely that he listened because he just got traded for virtually zero value and realized that his career was in danger of ending. And there is always the proverbial change of scenery that kicks a vexing player into gear…

        • That was my take on it, too. Seems to be working for Cingrani, unlike Drew Stubbs. Sometimes just saying the same thing a different way will click with some people.

        • Dick Williams or Bryan Price came out in so many words and said Cingrani was intent on doing things his own way, which obviously wasn’t working. If he’s listening to the Dodgers, good for him.

  2. Interesting to read that Stephenson has almost completely dropped his curveball. I think I remember some people saying it was maybe even better than his once 3-digit fastball. Is it just that he can command the slider better?

    • I had a similar thought, Matt. I thought his curveball was good and he had control of it. It seemed like the fastball gave him troubles. It’s an interesting strategic switch but he’s had better results.

    • Scrapping the curveball for a harder slider is something that a ton of guys have been doing for the last 10 years or so. Homer Bailey did the same thing. We still see the curveball from him at times, but that was his “go to” pitch when he first came up. He didn’t even have a slider.

  3. I know and realize that it takes time to develop…but I don’t like it and absolutely hate it. It’s absolute torture (or at least a form of it). And rebuilds mean that a whole bunch of kids get their chance…all at the same time! Which means a whole lot of team wide sucking! I hate that the reds have to be one of the organizations (sometimes it seems as if it’s the only one) that have to give these kids a chance. Patience isn’t something I have a lot of. But, I’ve been a die hard reds fan for now 28 yrs and I ain’t going no where (as I’ve said many times before). Unfortunately, this rebuild crap is just something I have to endure. Doesn’t mean I have to like it!

    • Quick, somebody get Sandman a bran muffin and a glass of prune juice to wash it down. That might help with his Rebuild crap irritability.

      • WVRedlegs, No thanks. I’ll pass on the bran muffin & prune juice enema. I’m perfectly content in my hatred of rebuilds.

        • As a Reds fan since the mid 1940’s, I never heard the word ‘rebuild’ until after the three playoff failures starting in 2014. For the most part, until blogs and the computer took over, it was just trade rumors from the newspapers sport pages.

        • Yeah… prune juice isn’t so bad really but I draw the lines at bran muffins myself.

        • Hey, I am no fan of rebuilds myself. But I do recognize that this one was necessary. And the Reds are taking a little longer than what was necessary. I don’t like the pace of this rebuild and I believe it needs accelerated this off-season. It has seen some progress since Aug. 1. The front office just needs to step down on the gas pedal this winter. The offense got sorted last year for the most part. The pitching was supposed to get sorted this year, but faced several roadblocks and setbacks. But it has taken a couple of steps forward since Aug. 1.
          I am done with the sorting and I am ready for some winning baseball. A promise the Castellinis have failed to deliver on big time.

    • Here’s something to think about: the Reds saw the writing on the wall and decided to start over. Simple enough.

      The Braves didn’t like what was happening to their team after 2013, so they gave away Craig Kimbrel to rid themselves of BJ Upton and his contract. That’s a tough decision to have to make, but the sooner-the-better is preferable to death by a thousand cuts.

      Right now the Braves are 2 games ahead of the Reds in standings after Cincinnati’s horrible June and July.

      Patience.

      • 83champ, everyone keeps telling us to have patience. Well, just saying the word patience isn’t going to make me have patience. This is just something we have to endure and we want it to be over as quickly as possible. Very quickly as it turns out. Now, I can understand to a certain point that 3-5 yrs for a rebuild may be considered quick, but it’s not quick enough for people like me. I know the reds can’t just go out and buy a contending team every year so this is how they have to conduct business. But I don’t like it…again, it’s just something I have to endure. BTW, 3-5 yrs may be considered quick for a rebuild, but the absolute atrocious play during this time makes it seem at least twice as long.

  4. Is it a common thing in this day and age where a professional pitcher adds a new pitch and seemingly instantly masters it? Didn’t it take R.A. Dickey awhile to learn the knuckleball? Maybe that’s a bad example but kudos to Stephenson for letting go of arguably his best pitch, learning a new pitch, and that becoming his best pitch.

    • Yeah – the knuckleball is just a different thing.

      The slider is generally considered “easier” to learn than say the change up.

      • What makes the change so hard to learn is that it’s relatively easy for very good hitters (especially MLB hitters) to perceive a change in arm speed. It’s also very hard to throw a pitch that is a lot slower than a fastball without slowing ones arm speed down. Then there’s a matter of not only the pitch needing to be slower but with the same arm speed, you also usually want it to drop some or even break arm-side a little. It’s a really tricky pitch to learn to throw well.

      • Good change-ups also may be the hardest pitch to hit in baseball. Looks like a fastball but never gets there.

  5. Excellent article Doug. What tends to drive the sort of changes which Stephenson has been through. Is it strictly lack of success on the field necessitating change? Do organizations have profiles they like to slot guys into in terms of repertoire they use?

    • Some pitches are certainly “better” for some guys to learn. It really does just kind of depend on the pitcher and what they can/can’t do. But, usually, yes, it’s a lack of success or progression with a pitch that leads to a change in what they are throwing.

      • Why are the reds philosophically opposed to the curve ball? Works well for Kershaw.

        • It’s not the Reds – it’s been a large majority of baseball that went away. Teams just kept going to harder stuff. In the last year or two we are seeing some guys go back to the slower curveball – but, it’s got to be an incredibly good one (like that Kershaw fellas).

  6. What I find as interesting is the comparison between Peraza and Castillo. I’ve heard comments on different sites that Peraza must not be very good because he was traded by two different teams. Then we have Castillo who explodes on the scene and no one remembers that he was traded by two teams. He is also older than Peraza. I’m not saying either one is a stud or a dud but it reinforces the non-linear development concept.

    • Not only was Castillo traded by two teams, he was traded by two teams three times. He went to the Padres in that botched trade in 2016 and then was returned to the Marlins after Colin Rea immediately went down with injury.

  7. Castillo has been a gem.
    I watched Stephenson pitch Sunday and it looked to me he was commanding his slider away against righties and it really set the tone for the game . His split/ change up was devastating…it fell off the table and both LH and RH batters looked bad. He seemed to struggle with his 2 seam location at times and that was where he sometimes fell behind with control. Exciting to see and good summary.

    Chris Welsh last night was focused on Cody Reed and his mechanics last night…maybe he’s just non-linear right now….we can hope.

  8. I wasn’t enjoying the rebuild very much (with the exception of Castillo) until late August/early September. I’ve really been impressed by BobSteve, Mahle and Romano, et. al. When we add in Bailey, our starting pitching looks drastically different (and better)when it did at the beginning of the year. Now some more sorting needs to occur in the pen, once we get past Iggy, Lorenzen and Paralta – unless Lorenzen becomes a starter. Then it really gets interesting. And if Disco and Finnagan are healthy, wow.

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