In this week’s contribution to the Looking Back at the 2019 Reds series, we are going to look back at All-Star pitcher Luis Castillo.
The Preseason Projection
Luis Castillo entered the season in his mid-20’s, coming in at 26-years-old. While pitchers tend to age a little differently than position players do, pitchers in their mid-20’s should certainly be near their prime much like hitters of the game age.
Here’s what Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the 2019 season had to say for the Cincinnati Reds right-handed pitcher:
The 2019 Season
Looking at the pre-season projection, Luis Castillo was looking like an above-average starter, but not by a whole lot. One thing with projections, particularly with starting pitchers, is that they rarely forecast a full season of starts for anyone – simply because that’s the nature of pitching.
Luis Castillo has been healthy for his entire big league career. He was only in his second full season, but he made all 32 starts in 2019 after making all 31 the year before, and all 15 after being called up mid-season in 2017. Not missing any time allowed him to best the projection in innings, and as such, walks, and strikeouts, too.
In the first half of the season he was downright dominant. In the 18 starts he made in the first half he posted a 2.29 ERA in 106.0 innings and allowed just 62 hits, with nine home runs, 53 walks, and 124 strikeouts. His walk rate was higher than you want it to be, but everything else was outstanding. That earned him a nod on the National League All-Star team – the first time he had been named to the game.
In his second half, though, things weren’t quite as good. His ERA more than doubled, jumping to 4.78 in the final 14 starts of the year. He threw 84.2 innings and allowed 77 hits – with 13 of those being home runs. That also came with 26 walks and 102 strikeouts. The walk rate dropped off in the second half – something that hopefully continues into 2020.
Overall those two halves combined for an above-average season. He would throw 190.2 innings, a career best, with a 3.40 ERA. In a season where the baseball flew out of stadiums at a historic rate he gave up just 22 home runs (after giving up 28 in 2018 in 21 fewer innings). Oh, and he racked up 226 strikeouts while posting a 1.14 WHIP. His WAR was 4.4 (Baseball Reference) or 4.1 (Fangraphs) depending on which version you prefer.
Well, what happened was that Luis Castillo beat out his projections across the board, with the exception of his walk rate. He remained healthy, he took steps forward, was named an All-Star, and was one of the better starting pitchers in the National League during 2019.
Some of that was due to the fact that he threw fewer fastballs than ever before, while working in more change ups. His slider rate stayed about the same as it has been the previous two years.
But let’s talk a little bit more about the first half and second half, because the difference in ERA was massive.
There were three big differences between the two halves. The walk rate was much lower in the second half. And the batting average on balls in play was much lower in the first half. The home run rate was also much higher in the second half. It was the home run rate and the batting average on balls in play both going up that resulted in the much higher ERA in the second half, even with the big drop off in walks.
What’s to come?
That’s a fun question, isn’t it? In the first year with Derek Johnson as the pitching coach, nearly every pitcher on the staff took a step forward. What does year two have in store? Will the second half walk rate carry forward? Will Major League Baseball fix the issues with the baseball, which could lead to lower home run rates across the board for everyone in the game?
Among qualified starting pitchers he had the second best groundball rate in baseball last season at 55.2%. He was also only one of three pitchers to finish in the top 15 in both groundball rate and strikeout rate. The other two were Stephen Strasburg and Sonny Gray. Turns out being good at both of those things tends to work out for a pitcher. If the baseball issues are fixed in, that combination could be really, really fun moving forward.