September 10, 2015
Castillo Playing Well for Arizona
Rejection comes in many forms: You can be replaced, ignored, or outright sent away. Welington Castillo has suffered through each in less than a calendar year, yet has somehow found a way to thrive.
Castillo started the offseason as the Cubs' no. 1 catcher, but it was clear to anyone who was paying attention that he wasn't part of the organization's plan going forward. After a failed run at free agent Russell Martin, the Cubs traded for Miguel Montero. Castillo still appeared to have a spot on the roster as Montero's right-handed platoon partner, but soon after the signing of Jon Lester, the Cubs also added David Ross and the writing was on the wall for Castillo's future as a North Sider.
Castillo's inevitable departure wasn't a surprise, but the length of time it took the team to move him was, as he entered the season as part of a triumvirate behind the plate. Joe Maddon did his best to manage a tricky situation, and it may have actually been a boon for the Cubs as far as keeping Montero from getting overworked early on. But Castillo could never get in the swing of things offensively, posting a .583 OPS in just 47 plate appearances over the season's first 37 games.
Castillo said all the right things when asked by media about the awkward situation. He knew he was on a team that ideally expected to use him as trade bait months earlier, but he never complained and did his best to keep a smile on his face.
"I'm a human being," Castillo said when I asked him last week if the lack of playing time and roster crunch was hard on him. "But at the same time, I can't do anything about it; it's out of my hands. Whatever they decided to do, it was out of my hands. I just have to go out and prepare myself and work like I am going to play every day. They did the right thing, it was the right time for them to trade me."
Castillo's right: It's worked out well for the Cubs. Montero has put up a strong .278 TAv while providing the veteran presence the Cubs have sorely lacked behind the plate (as well as elite framing skills, ranking fifth in framing runs added). Ross, a strong framer and Lester's personal catcher, has added elite makeup and experience to a young clubhouse, and has quickly become a team favorite. That value can certainly be debated, but there's no doubting that Maddon and the team appreciate his presence.
Chicago finally found a trade partner for Castillo when they moved him to Seattle for struggling reliever Yoervis Medina in mid-May. Even with the Mariners' group of catchers putting together one of the worst offensive seasons ever from the position, they were unable to give Castillo consistent burn, moving him to Arizona after just 28 plate appearances.
Suddenly Castillo went from a player who had spent his entire professional career in one organization to one who had been traded twice in the span of three weeks.
"The first thing (the Arizona coaching staff) said to me was, 'Don't worry about your hitting, just go and play defense. Help us with the pitching staff,'" Castillo told me. "It's hard when you don't play every day, so the hitting may not be there. They knew how hard that is and said not to worry about playing time. They said they know I can hit, so just go out, have fun, and play hard like I always do. It's given me a little confidence to come back and play the way I know how to play. I've taken advantage of that."
Castillo signed with the Cubs as an international free agent in December 2004 and eventually climbed his way to the bigs with short stints in 2010 and 2011. When Castillo got the call-up to Wrigley in April 2012, this is what Kevin Goldstein wrote about him:
Castillo has above-average power, and well above average for his position. His much-improved plate discipline has played a key role in his offensive breakthroughs, but he's still a pure power hitter who is prone to strikeouts. Castillo's receiving skills are not as good as his arm, and he's slow, even for a catcher.
He was always lauded for his bat, and the arm impressed anyone who was paying attention—I remember former Cubs manager Dale Sveum accurately referring to it as a cannon multiple times—but the rest of his skills behind the plate were raw. Castillo worked hard with Cubs catching instructor Mike Borzello (whom Russell Martin credits for much of his defensive development) and the two revamped his mechanics behind the plate, allowing him to put together a great defensive season in 2013. But then in 2014 the production from the bat dropped for the third straight season as he posted a .261 TAv while continuing to frame poorly.
That combination led the Cubs to make the moves they did in the offseason, and eventually Castillo found himself in Arizona. It was a winding road, but it appears it couldn't have ended up better for the catcher. In 65 games with the Diamondbacks, Castillo is slashing .274/.339/.557 with 16 home runs and 12 doubles, good for a remarkable .315 TAv and 2.5 WARP. That WARP matches his career high, set in 113 games in 2013, despite following negative WARP in his stints in Chicago and Seattle.
If you're thinking it's rare for a player to post a negative WARP with two teams in one season, then play for a third in that same season and post a WARP above two, you're right. Since 1950, here's the list of players who managed to even post a WARP above one with their third team.
What Castillo is currently doing has never been done, and to do it as a catcher is all the more impressive. But is there a clear explanation why this has suddenly happened?
"I think it was just the time," Castillo said. "When God says that something is going to happen to you—it doesn't matter who says nah or it's not gonna happen for you—when God says it's gonna happen, it'll happen. I think that this is my time. I've been getting better and better at the plate and my talent is coming through."
That's a perfectly fine explanation for Castillo, but here at BP, we like to go a little deeper. The fact is, though, there isn't some big mechanical adjustment for Castillo. He's not seeing or attacking certain pitch types better. He is noticeably better on the curveball, but that's hardly the key to his success; he's crushing fastballs, but that's something he's always done when things are going right. His walk and strikeout rates aren't significantly better than his career numbers.
Castillo told me he feels comfortable in Arizona, and clearly playing every day would help him get some consistency at the plate. If we just isolate what he's done in his three stints this season, we see that he's swinging at pitches significantly less during his time in Arizona (50 and 51 percent in Chicago and Seattle, compared to 43 percent in Arizona). Interestingly enough, it's pitches in the zone that he's swinging at less (his 57 percent rate with Arizona is the lowest of his career), but clearly he's picking the pitches he can do the most damage with to attack.
Here's everything Castillo was swinging at while with the Cubs and Mariners in the first two months of the season:
And here is what he's been attacking since he arrived in Arizona:
He still goes out of the zone on occasion, but what he's swinging at in the zone is much more concentrated. Castillo is waiting for his pitch, and when he gets it, he's doing major damage.
But again, this isn't some huge mechanical adjustment Castillo's made or even a sudden change in approach due to watching tape or working in the cage. It's about comfort. Just based on talking to Castillo, the fact that he knows he doesn't have to fight for playing time, thus he's not trying to prove himself with every at-bat he gets, has allowed him to return to a more natural, successful approach. He's no longer trying to win a spot in tomorrow's lineup with every swing of the bat. That, along with the natural nonlinear development of players is as good a reason for Castillo's breakout as any, as is the good old standby of small-sample luck, if you're into that whole pessimism thing.
But let's keep in mind that this is a 28-year-old catcher who many believed had a strong chance to develop offensively if he got a proper opportunity. When Castillo's departure from Chicago became inevitable, I was told it was less to do with a lack of confidence in Castillo's future and more the desire to bring in proven veterans and upgrade the pitch-framing. The Cubs' brass believed this talent was in Castillo (perhaps not to this current degree); they just felt they didn't have the time to wait and wanted an immediate upgrade.
Along with all the offensive success Castillo has experienced this season, he's also developed a rapport with his pitching staff. As was the norm for him in Chicago, Castillo has proven to be a diligent worker, and the pitchers in Arizona appear to trust him to call a strong game and lead them in the right direction. While he still struggles in the framing department (-1.6 framing runs added) and may always, it's an aspect of his game he says he continues to work on.
If Castillo's emergence is real, the Diamondbacks could suddenly be a team that could surprise in 2016 and beyond. Their offensive core is all under 30 and many are just hitting their peak, led by MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, along with breakout star A.J. Pollock, a quietly brilliant season from David Peralta (.314 TAv, 3.9 WARP), and young talent like Yasmany Tomas and Jake Lamb. It's a group that's been good enough to boast the NL's second-most runs per game, while sitting third in both on-base percentage and slugging. Add in top draft pick Dansby Swanson and a trio of young top-prospect pitchers in Archie Badley, Aaron Blair, and Braden Shipley, and we're looking at a team that everyone was (rightfully) questioning just a few months ago, but could now be just a few smart offseason moves away from contention.
With all the offensive talent Arizona surprisingly boasts, Castillo is almost icing on the cake, but he's certainly a welcome addition to the desert. Sure, it could just be that dreaded small-sample monster making us think Castillo is something he's not. But perhaps it's not; maybe the key to Castillo's success in 2015 was that he just needed a little love.