25 August 2017

What's Next For Miguel Castro?

The Orioles are going to need starting pitchers next year. Well, they also need starting pitchers right now, but there's almost nothing that can be done about that. Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jeremy Hellickson are scheduled to become free agents. Wade Miley has a team option for $12 million (and a $500,000 buyout). If they all depart, that leaves Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman as the team's two penciled-in starters.

There are options at Triple-A Norfolk, even if they aren't good ones. One name, Jayson Aquino, is a little more interesting than the others (Alec Asher, Chris Lee, Vidal Nuno, Logan Verrett, Tyler Wilson, Gabriel Ynoa, etc.). Perhaps he'll get a shot late this season or in 2018. That's about it, though, in terms of immediate starting rotation help in the O's minor league system.

That's what makes it intriguing to ponder the next step for Miguel Castro. Signed by the Blue Jays in 2012 as an amateur free agent, Castro is still only 22 years old. The Orioles, though, are the third major league team he's played for, and this is the first time he's found some success. While coming up in the Blue Jays' system, he was first used as a starting pitcher. That didn't quite work out, and he was eventually shipped to the Rockies as part of a package of prospects to acquire Troy Tulowitzki in July 2015. He hasn't started a game since, either in the majors or the minors.

In 32+ major league innings combined with the Blue Jays and Rockies in 2015 and 2016, Castro posted an ERA over 6 each year. The Rockies had seen enough and designated him for assignment in March, so in April the Orioles were able to acquire Castro for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Castro first joined the O's in mid-May, and he's been a pretty regular contributor out of the bullpen in July and August.

Castro, who, according to Brooks Baseball data, throws a four-seamer, slider, and changeup, has posted a 2.74 ERA over 46 innings. He's made strides in walk and home run prevention, at least compared to his brief stints in Toronto and Colorado:

Castro BB/9
2015: 5.09
2016: 3.07
2017: 2.35

Castro HR/9
2015: 2.04
2016: 1.84
2017: 1.17

However, his strikeouts have also decreased each year:

Castro K/9
2015: 9.17
2016: 7.36
2017: 4.89

After posting BABIPs over .320 in his first two seasons, Castro is currently running a BABIP of just .210. He's also stranding runners at a higher than normal rate (80.8 LOB% vs. league average of 73.6% for relievers). It's easy to like what Castro is doing, but it's toough to know what to trust.
On Wednesday, the Orioles got a huge helping hand from Castro in their 12-inning win over the A's. After Zach Britton's consecutive save streak came to an end and the Orioles went to extra innings, they needed someone to step in and hold things down for a while for a bullpen with just Darren O'Day remaining (and he had pitched in three straight games, and four of the last five).
Castro did just that, hurling 3 2/3 scoreless innings and giving Manny Machado some time for more late-game heroics.

At the very least, it seems like stretching Castro out to become a starter wouldn't be a difficult transition. He's already been used in short appearances and longer ones. On July 30, he threw just a third of an inning and was ineffective. In his next outing, he was summoned after another bad Tillman start and tossed six shutout innings.

Still, his lack of strikeouts with his current pitch arsenal causes hesitation. In 2017, the average major league starter has a K/9 of 7.9. Only one qualified starter this season has a lower K/9 than Castro's 4.89. That would be Ty Blach of the Giants at 4.38. Blach is a former fifth-round pick who's doing an even better job of avoiding walks and home runs. Maybe Castro could do something similar, but it's tough to find success and maintain it year after year when you're not missing bats. Major league hitters are too good at finding ways to maximize damage when they make contact.

Before coming to the Orioles, Castro's fastball velocity was about 97 mph. This year, it's closer to 96 mph. There isn't much change in vertical movement, but his fastball is generating more movement horizontally. The same is true for both his slider and changeup. Just look at the movement Castro can generate with his fastball:
You see in the above clips what he can do with his fastball and slider. His changeup still seems to be a work in progress, and he only throws it about 11% of the time anyway. But why isn't he able to consistently get more whiffs? Even his best swing-and-miss pitch, his slider, has taken a slight dip (though it's still getting whiffs on more than 51% of swings).

Another strange thing for Castro is that he's getting batters to chase more, but they're making more contact. His O-Swing% went from about 25-26% in 2015/2016 to almost 37% this season. But after posting O-Contact% numbers of 48% and then 55% in 2015/2016, that number has jumped to almost 66%. Overall, batters are swinging more against him, and they're making more contact. And somehow, it's working. He's about in the middle of the pack in terms of average exit velocity on batted balls, so maybe that should be considered a victory. But it's not like he's been great in limiting hard contact.

The best part of Castro is the Orioles seem to have something in him, even if it's unknown exactly what that is. Plus, he was acquired for almost nothing. He's young, cheap, and under team control for a long time. After watching other pitchers leave Baltimore and get more out of their talents -- in some cases, almost immediately -- it is a nice change for the O's to get actual contributions from a discarded and overlooked pitcher.

Castro may not project as a solid starting option or even as any kind of long-term, shutdown reliever, but he is helping right now and does possess a couple of pitches that flash his potential. The Orioles don't need him to be amazing; they just need him to do a decent Miguel Gonzalez impression. Is that too much to ask for?

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