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September 7, 2017

What You Need to Know

Two Fastballs, One Rookie

by Ben Diamond


The Wednesday Takeaway

Reds rookie Luis Castillo is one of the most interesting pitchers in baseball, and if you ask 10 baseball writers why he deserves that label, you’d get 10 different answers. If you ask me, though, it’s because his two best weapons are fastballs—both thrown at elite velocities but different in every other way. These paradoxical headliners have the potential to be his ticket to ace-dom, but could also prove to be an Achilles’ heel.

Let’s zoom in on those two fastballs. In one, he has a rather straight but blazing four-seamer, which clocks in at almost 98 mph, higher than any other qualified starting pitcher in baseball. The other is a wild sinker, a high-90s bullet which Castillo curves as well as James McAvoy and finishes behind only Noah Syndergaard as the fastest in baseball.

The eye test gives you a fairly good idea of how they separate themselves—one travels like an Nathan Eovaldi-esque frozen rope (okay, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration), the other slings across the plate like an Andrew Miller slider (yes, another exaggeration). If you’ve had enough of my analogies and prefer numbers, feast your eyes on this: Castillo’s four-seamer features a rather unspectacular 6.48 inches of horizontal movement, but the sinker whips it at 10.40 inches of latitude.

You may wonder why Castillo even bothers to throw his four-seamer then, given the insane movement rates on his sinker. The answer? Imagine trying to control that sinker, managing to fit it into the strike zone without a) hanging it right over the plate or b) drilling the batter in the abdomen. It isn’t easy, to say the least, and if Castillo wants to run a walk rate below five, filling up the zone and painting the corners will have to be done with the four-seamer. But don’t despair, out-of-the-zone whiffs will be aplenty with his sinker that looks just like the fastball when it comes out of his hand.

This plan sounds awfully good on paper, but isn’t quite perfected in games. Obviously, Castillo hasn’t done such a bad job thus far, carrying an impressive 3.12 ERA in his rookie season, but the sinker has the ninth-worst whiff rate in baseball, disappointing considering the movement he gets on the pitch. The pessimist’s interpretation here is that Castillo’s due to regress given one fastball can’t net whiffs and the other is straight, but I’d rather look at the glass half full and tell you to watch that strikeout rate rise from an already great 9.74 K/9 to elite levels in 2018, provided he can better harness the sinker.

If you’d like a preview of the type of pitcher Castillo could be next season with a bit more refinement, then look no further than Wednesday’s impressive performance against the Brewers. The righty went eight innings in his final start of the season, giving up just one run on four hits, zero walks, and 10 strikeouts. While he’s used the four-seamer about five times as often as the sinker over the season, the two pitches were used nearly evenly in this start to, of course, off-the-charts results. The sinker found the strike zone more often than not, the four-seamer painted the corners, and the dynamic duo racked up a whole lot of whiffs in the process.

Meanwhile, the changeup and slider (which I’ve failed to mention thus far) both looked like plus pitches, generating some whiffs as well and inducing a hell of a lot of soft contact and ground balls.

Quick Hits

Fourteen consecutive games. I’m not going to bury the lede, that’s what you came here to see. The Indians continued adding onto their league-best winning streak with a 5-1 trouncing of the White Sox. Everything’s working for the Indians right now, and that didn’t change on Wednesday when the offense capitalized on big moments and the pitching left the opposition with zero room for error.

The day's MVP was Carlos Carrasco, who took a perfect game into the fifth inning and finished with just one run allowed over a full nine innings of work. Just three White Sox reached base all night, and Cookie struck out nine for good measure.

On offense, Carlos Santana dealt the big blow in the eighth inning when he smacked a two-run home run off Danny Farquhar to put the club up by three. Another pair of runs were tacked on after, and a ninth-inning solo shot by Adam Engel was the only blemish on the Indians’ box score.

***

When you think about it, baseball bats have a pretty tough life. They’re cut from their precious tree, sheared down to a cylinder, swung at speeding projectiles multiple times a day, and when the fibers holding the bat together shatter and spew fragments of wood across the grass, the lumber is disposed of. Honestly, I wouldn’t blame the bats if they wanted payback against their unflinching owners who subject them to a pummeling of balls, and if they ever became sentient they might—OH MY GOD IT ATTACKED IAN HAPP.

***

Baseball is a cruel sport. Just ask Gerrit Cole, who pitched his heart out and was rewarded with a front-row seat to his team’s ninth-inning collapse. The Pirates’ ace left the game on his 108th pitch at the end of the eight scoreless innings, striking out eight and allowing just two hits in what was likely his best start of 2017.

Cole then watched as his offense went down flailing in the eighth frame, once again failing to push a run across the plate. He watched as Alex Avila (Alex Avila!) smacked his first triple since 2013 to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead in the ninth. And he watched as Wade Davis nailed down the save to seal a thrilling victory for Chicago. Poor Gerrit Cole.

***

What you might have noticed by now is that these winning streaks don’t simply happen by chance—teams can’t string together 13 in a row through shoe-string wins. Too much in baseball is random, too many routine fly balls can be pushed out of the stadium on a windy night, and too many winning streaks are crushed by a fluke occurrence. To win 13 in a row, to display such incredible dominance for multiple weeks, the Diamondbacks have had to win their games handily, leaving no room for randomness to take its grip and turn a win into a loss.

That is, until Wednesday, when Arizona met its toughest opponent yet in the Dodgers and found that winning counts just as much when the game is close. The two clubs were wrapped up at 1-1 for the majority of the game, with the Diamondbacks’ first run coming from a double by starter Taijuan Walker and the Dodgers pushing across Chris Taylor on a Cody Bellinger groundout.

Finally in the seventh, Adam Rosales sent a double into center field to bring home Ketel Marte, giving the club a one-run lead. One more would come that frame, and Arizona hung clinging to a 13th straight win after a clean ninth by Fernando Rodney.

Defensive Play of the Day

Nicky Delmonico’s turned into an overnight star with the bat, but he got it done with the glove on Wednesday by robbing Francisco Lindor of a home run.

What to Watch Thursday

Thursday’s short slate of baseball will kick off at 1:35 pm ET when Sonny Gray (3.36 ERA) and the Yankees take on Kevin Gausman (4.79 ERA) and the Orioles in Baltimore. In the evening, Aaron Nola (3.72 ERA) will look to get back on track against the Nationals, while Matt Harvey (5.97 ERA) hopes to rebound against the Reds following a rough outing in his first start back from the disabled list.

At 8:10 pm ET, flip on Corey Kluber (2.56 ERA) and the Indians, as they look to win a franchise-record 15 straight games. If there’s a game you watch tomorrow, it better be that one. Assuming the Indians win in about 120 minutes, feel free to then switch to Clayton Kershaw’s (1.95 ERA) second start off the DL—he’ll look to do Kershaw things against the Rockies in Los Angeles.

Ben Diamond is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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