The sophomore slump is a nerve-racking thing, whether you’re the fan witnessing it or the player enduring it. Sophomore slumps are even more pronounced in this age of social media.
Luis Castillo is in the midst of such a dilemma. After allowing four runs in four innings in Atlanta, his ERA has climbed to 5.85. Some folks, though few, are suggesting a demotion may be in order. Others say that he may not pan out. The majority, like me, are confused. He has shown so many signs of brilliance, and has also had his fair share of struggles.
Take the start against the Braves, for example. He was perfect two outs into the fourth inning. Then Freddie Freeman fouls off a thousand pitches and works a 274 pitch walk. That at-bat is followed by five-straight hits. What seemed like a blink of an eye erased the perfect game, the no-hit bid, the shutout bid, and the quality start bid. Quick explosions have been a theme of Castillo’s second season in the bigs.
Some worry he will not develop, but his struggles brought up an interesting thought – what was Johnny Cueto’s second year like? Castillo is frequently lumped in with Cueto, so let’s compare. I’ll leave out ERA so this blind comparison isn’t a dead giveaway.
Thoughts? I’ll come back to it…no peaking.
Johnny, in his first 17 starts of 2009 had a better ERA, a better win loss record (actually it is the mirror image of Castillo’s 5-8 record), but he also had a better defense behind him. In fact, according to fangraphs.com, the batting average on balls in play against Cueto was .254. Castillo currently endures a .291 BABIP against him.
Castillo manages to induce a good percentage of ground balls at 44%, but his left on base percentage (percent of runners left stranded) sits at 67.9%. There are, currently, 77 pitchers with a better rate than that. Part of that can be explained by the 18 homers he has allowed, thus far, but Cueto, comparatively, had left 75.9% of his runners stranded. As far as pitching statistics go, that one is heavy on what the defense does.
Though it is difficult to quantify, confidence is a big factor in Castillo’s struggles. I’m not saying he doesn’t have confidence, but that he hasn’t figured out a way to punch through the adversity. With runners on base, opposing batters are hitting .299 against Castillo with a .923 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Compare that to just a .242 average against with the bases empty.
Now allow me to reveal the blind comparison:
Just to note, xFIP is an ERA-like statistic that, through its formula, takes into account only the things a pitcher can control. Things like fly balls allowed, walks, and strikeouts are included in this to represent the ERA a pitcher would have if all things were considered equal behind him. Welcome to the next minute where I tell you why Castillo is fine.
Look at the strikeout rate. That currently puts him in the top 40 of starting pitchers. Not a stat you would normally see on someone with a 5.85 ERA.
This was perfectly illustrated June 9th when Castillo got saddled with the loss at home against the Cardinals. He pitched six innings, struck out 10, but gave up five runs. He also gave up two dingers, both of them back-to-back off the bats of Jose Martinez and Marcell Ozuna, after striking out the first two St. Louis batters on six pitches. Talk about night and day…
Digging a little deeper into his strikeouts, Fangraphs.com also has advanced pitch statistics, like the fact that he is inducing 13.7% swinging strikes, which is up from last year.
The only thing in the advanced pitch statistics that has regressed from last year is the percentage of pitches in the zone has dropped 3.6% to 42.5%. Needless to say, just as your little league coach told you, throw strikes and you’ll be successful.
Like Cueto, Castillo is a small mechanical tweak away from reaching the level that we all know he is capable of getting to. Take it easy on the “Castillo is a bust” train, because he is much closer to greatness than his current ERA suggests.
Jeff Brantley talks Bell, new pitching coach Derek Johnson and more
I discuss one free agent pitcher that should be on the Reds’ radar, plus Jeff Brantley joins me to discuss the hiring of manager David Bell and pitching coach Derek Johnson on today’s podcast. Listen and subscribe below.
Bell hiring finally rings in a new century for Reds
The innovators are often criticized. It’ll never work, they’re told.
Wind the baseball tighter to allow more home runs? Ty Cobb hated it because it took the science out of the game. But Babe Ruth loved it, so did the fans and the sport grew. Show sports on a cable channel for 24 hours a day? Nobody will watch that. The Internet? It’s just a fad.
The Cincinnati Reds love their tradition, so it’s no surprise that it has taken them this long to embrace the modern game. This is baseball, not math, the Reds have said for the past 20 years while others have proven that math matters. Not the kind of math of counting stats that says he’s a good hitter or pitcher because he has this many of this or that. But the kind of math that looks at percentages and formulas that aren’t easy to understand. They call it analytics and it makes old-timers (mostly people over 30) roll their eyes from man caves to the broadcast booth. A lack of understanding is not a reason to dismiss an idea. It’s a reason to learn before you judge.
The Reds have finally been convinced that their way doesn’t work anymore. They’ve stopped rolling their eyes, let go of the eye-rollers who blocked progress and hired a manager with vision. Those old ways once worked for the Reds — though not as much as we’d like to think— when all teams did it that way. But when smarter ways to build a good team passed them by, so did their ability to win.
To be fair, the Reds have been moving in this direction, the one Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s began following in 1997. The Reds have an analytics director and three people they call data scientists. The problem is that too much of that information was stopping at the field manager’s door. The guys running the dugout weren’t doing enough with it. They were baseball men, after all, and they only trusted their eyes and tradition more than a spreadsheet or report they probably didn’t take the time to understand.
And the front office allowed the dysfunction to fester through Baker, Price and Riggleman. Finally, there is reason to believe that the Cincinnati Reds aren’t stuck in the 20th century.
There’s a new guy in the dugout named David Bell who has caught this vision since he left the Reds organization after managing in the minors. He’s worked for the Cardinals, Cubs and Giants, teams that have obviously done a lot more right in recent seasons than the Reds have. Yes, Bell had to leave the Reds to learn a better way.
When Bell was introduced as the new manager he said things that were an indictment of the front office and on-field dysfunction. He talked about how all of the information had to be considered from upstairs to downstairs. He asked for an offseason office upstairs and will live in Cincinnati in the offseason.
He has this crazy idea that the front office and manager’s office ought to actually work together and have shared leadership instead of a top-down model that didn’t work. Remember Jesse Winker from odd-man out to everyday right fielder in a 24-hour period? Then there was the indecision about what to do with Homer Bailey. Who’s in charge we wondered? Does this team have a strategy?
Bell surely interviewed the Reds as much as they interviewed him. He discovered the lack of communication between the front office and the dugout. He must have told Dick Williams he’s ready to listen to them, and it appears they’re ready to listen to him.
This is good for the Reds. A true strategy that teaches on-field fundamentals and has an appreciation for complex data will have a chance to develop and flourish. Players will come up from the minors and maybe not sit the bench. They won’t hear a different message from the one they’ve heard in the minors.
Now this is going to take some getting used to if you don’t buy all this analytics mumbo-jumbo. The in-game moves and strategies won’t be what your used to:
- The lineup might not be predictable.
- You won’t agree with a lot of pitching changes.
- You’ll wonder why Winker isn’t playing tonight.
- Why not bunt in this situation, you’ll wonder.
And the offseason moves:
- Why did they sign that guy?
- Why didn’t they sign that guy?
- Who are these all these prospects we just got for a proven player?
- Those aren’t the pitchers we should have gone after?
Not every move will work, but you have to play the percentages. Not every move (not even close to it) worked the old way. It’s a new world in Cincinnati. If you still have a Big Red Machine hangover, get over it. Rose, Morgan, Bench and Perez would have been free-agent eligible by 1975. In today’s market, there is no way all of them (if any of them) would have been teammates that deep into their careers.
The Reds can’t compete with big payrolls. They must copy what other small-market teams like the A’s are doing. It’s the only way to have more good seasons than bad ones like the A’s have. And maybe they’ll find that year like they did in 1990.
That’s the promise of the Bell hiring. Not because he’s necessarily destined to be a great manager but because his hiring has signaled a fundamental change in the way the Reds intend to do business. Maybe Bell will preside over the next playoff team, maybe he won’t.
But at least we can finally welcome the Reds to the 21st century.
Reds Tab Johnson to Lead Pitching Renaissance
The second big move of the offseason for the Cincinnati Reds came last night with the signing of a new pitching coach, Derek Johnson. The Reds nabbed him from Milwaukee, a team that largely outperformed expectations to finish 6th in pitching.
Johnson has been the Brewers pitching coach for four seasons and is highly regarded by the league and pretty much everyone. Those who are around the Reds organization are 100% on board with this hire.
— Jeff Brantley (@RedsCowboy) October 31, 2018
I thought pitching coach would be the biggest hire of the off-season and the #Reds crushed it with Derek Johnson
— C. Trent Rosecrans (@ctrent) October 31, 2018
Derek Johnson??…I’m pleasantly surprised. Solid move! #Reds
— Jim Day (@JimDayTV) October 31, 2018
Based on text I’m getting back from people around MLB, the Derek Johnson hire is a big one for the #Reds. He’s very highly thought of and respected.
— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) October 31, 2018
His departure, while the third Milwaukee assistant to jump ship, drew the ire of those around the Brewers organization.
DEREK JOHNSON HAS LEFT THE #BREWERS!!! I’M NEVER GOING TO STOP BEING UPSET
— Reviewing the Brew (@ReviewngTheBrew) October 31, 2018
— The Brewer Nation (@BrewerNation) October 31, 2018
It’s profoundly strange to see a team that just won 96 games and came within a game of the World Series lose both their hitting and their pitching coach without either guy getting a promotion. I can’t figure that.
— Matthew Trueblood (@MATrueblood) November 1, 2018
Man, losing Derek Johnson really feels like it’s going to hurt the Brewers.
— Kyle L. (@brewerfan28) October 31, 2018
Sometimes reactions are evidence enough, but let’s look into Derek Johnson. He was a college pitcher, but never toed the rubber in the major leagues. Doesn’t seem to have hindered him in the coaching arena, where he has a ton of experience. He began coaching in college, and even coached at Vanderbilt for a bit, who happen to be pretty good at baseball. He even coached Sonny Gray, there, who is a possible target to bring into the Reds rotation.
His foray into professional coaching began with coordinating the Cubs minor league pitchers 2013 through 2014. That’s when the Brewers hired him onto their pitching coaching staff. Once with the Brew Crew, he immediately got to the developing of guys like Chase Anderson, Junior Guerra, Jhoulys Chacin, and other overachievers. Heck, the guy wrote the book on pitching, back in 2012 (see The Complete Guide to Pitching).
Another key factor, which has been the theme pf the Reds offseason, is he’s a coach who embraces analytics. He doesn’t go only analytics, though, and tends to use what will best aid a pitcher, without over-informing him. One thing that has been prevalent in interviews with David Bell is that there is a happy medium with analytics, and Johnson is on board with that.
Johnson also had a quote, in an interview with the Journal Sentinel, that I found interesting, and it just continues to excite me about this hire. On the question of if his personality is that of anonymity, he said this:
“I would say for sure. First off, this game is never about a coach. It’s always about the players. Players play, coaches coach. For me, we’re grinding away in the bullpens and we’re working on stuff in the games and trying to figure out what to do next and, really, that’s my main job and my main focus. The interviews, and all that kind of stuff, that’s for the players.”
I found this to be of interest, too:
Journal Sentinel: “The sentiment outside the organization coming into the season was that Brewers needed to sign or trade for 1-2 established starters in order to contend. Instead, Jhoulys Chacín was signed to a smaller, shorter deal and you’ve relied on your holdovers to fill out the rotation with Jimmy Nelson out and Chase Anderson and Zach Davies not pitching as well as they did in 2017. How satisfying is that?”
Derek Johnson: “I’m very proud of them. I’m very proud of how they’ve gone out and competed and stuck with some of the things that we’ve done in the bullpen and where we’re trying to go. I think a big part of my personality and the way I think of things is, ‘These are our guys – they’re Brewers.’ And right now, the other guys who aren’t Brewers, they don’t concern me at all, and they won’t until they become Brewers. That’s above my pay grade. What I have are 13 guys and we’re doing the best we can with them. They’re our guys right now, and I like it that way. I don’t want for anything else. It’s what we are and who we have and these are the guys that are putting the uniform on every day. I think it’s really important and honorable for us to think of it that way. I don’t care about other pitchers; I care about them.”
From what I gather from all the sources and people I’ve read, this is a good hire. Welcome to Cincinnati, Derek Johnson.
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