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Yankees potential trade target: Luis Castillo

The best player available at the deadline is sure to attract a healthy list of suitors.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

With the trade deadline just weeks away, GMs and their staffs will be furiously working the phones either looking for ways to improve their squads or finding the richest offer for players on the block. Reds starter Luis Castillo figures to be the most sought after player on the market, with no fewer than nine teams interested in his services. And with World Series aspirations and a rotation that has faltered in recent outings while facing its first question of injury, the Yankees appear situated to make a run at the star hurler. They’ll get a chance to see him up close tonight too, as he’s the scheduled starter for Cincinnati at Yankee Stadium.

2022 Stats: 12 games, 71 IP, 2.92 ERA (158 ERA+), 3.04 FIP, 25.3% K%, 7.8 % BB%, 1.8 fWAR

2022 Contract Status: Earning $7.35 million in second year of arbitration-eligibility. Free agent after 2023 season.

Castillo has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball since his breakout season in 2019. During that timeframe, he ranks ninth in fWAR (12.2), 12th in IP (519.1), and 18th in FIP (3.49). Even more impressive is that he’s done that pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in MLB, in front of a defense that consistently grades out as one of the worst in the sport.

He is a unique blend of strikeouts and groundballs. Few pitchers record a higher percentage of their outs via those two outcomes than Cincinnati’s ace. Since the beginning of 2019, here is a list of qualified starters with at least a 25 percent strikeout rate and 50 percent groundball rate:

  1. Luis Castillo

That’s it.

Castillo’s had an interesting three-plus seasons dating back to the start of his breakout. As I mentioned, he became a nationally-recognized name after throwing 190.2 innings in 2019 with a sterling 3.40 ERA, 3.70 FIP, and almost 29 percent strikeout rate. It appeared he had broken into a new tier in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, his 3.21 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 22.3 percent K-BB% and fifth place fWAR finish (2.4) seeming to confirm him as one of the true aces in the league.

But then 2021 struck. Through his first 11 starts, he owned an unsightly 7.22 ERA (though a 4.34 xFIP suggests he was the victim of some rotten luck). Then, starting with his June 4th start against the Cardinals, he turned his season around, pitching to a 2.73 ERA the rest of the way out. This season started in much the same manner, Castillo struggling out of the gate to the tune of a 4.35 ERA in his first four starts before a one-hit, ten-strikeout gem on May 31st against the Red Sox got his campaign back on track. Including that start and the seven starts that followed, Castillo’s 2.32 ERA and at least six innings pitched in seven of the eight suggest he is very much back to the pitcher that dominated NL Central lineups in 2019 and 2020.

Much of this variability in effectiveness can be traced back to his fastball velocity. Castillo is currently tied with Dylan Cease for the sixth-fastest average fastball velocity (97 mph) among qualified starters this year. It appears that his performance suffers in the opening months of the season as he ramps up to peak fastball velocity:

Courtesy of FanGraphs

There’s a strong inverse correlation between FIP and fastball velocity, to the point that I feel comfortable naming it as the culprit for his early-season woes. However, I have a theory that it’s not performance against the fastball, but rather performance against the changeup in the context of fluctuating fastball velocity that’s the real issue at hand.

Without question, the changeup is Castillo’s best pitch. It graded out as the third-best pitch in all of baseball in 2019 by Statcast’s Run Value metric, worth a whopping -28 runs. It mirrors his fastball from a movement standpoint before dipping below the plane of the heater at the last second, and with roughly nine mph of velocity separation between the two pitches.

My theory is that the changeup’s effectiveness is severely neutered when Castillo doesn’t possess his A-plus fastball velocity. Hitters don’t have to cheat as much to get to the fastball and are therefore able to stay back on the changeup. None of his pitches move significantly more than average, so he really leans on that separation in velocity to maximize the effectiveness of both fastball and change.

As you can see, the performance of Castillo’s changeup in 2021 tracks very closely with the velocity of his fastball on the earlier chart. The faster his heater, the worse hitters do against his changeup, and the more effective he is overall.

Besides the changeup, Castillo also possesses a slider, with both pitches inducing whiffs at a greater than 40 percent clip in 2018, 2019, and 2020. I will note that the whiffs on either pitch are down this year — something to keep an eye on in the second half.

I also find it pretty cool that Castillo throws four-pitches — four-seamer, changeup, sinker, and slider — all at least 20 percent of the time. Having a diverse pitch mix is such an important asset for making it more than two turns through a batting order. That said, he may be held back by the movement profiles of his pitches.

I’ve written a lot in recent months about the importance in separation between the movement profiles of one’s pitches, and it is in this area that I feel Castillo could really take his game to another level. Because he throws a gyro-spin slider like the one Gerrit Cole uses and has similar movement between fastball and changeup as I previously mentioned, Castillo’s pitches don’t break away from each other as much as they could. A hitter can key in on a certain region of the zone based on the trajectory of a pitch out of Castillo’s hand and still have a pretty good chance of making contact regardless of what pitch is coming. This is where someone like Matt Blake can come in and help a pitcher tweak the shape of their pitches — whirly slider anyone? — with the end result being increased effectiveness of all pitches in the repertoire.

Of course, being the most coveted player on the market means Castillo is likely to command a king’s ransom, even with only a year and change of team control remaining. The Yankees are certainly no strangers to pursuing the star pitcher, with Brian Cashman balking at a proposed Luis Castillo-Gleyber Torres swap in the beginning of 2021. With the Dodgers rumored by voices around the industry as the favorites to land Castillo, I imagine it would take substantial offer — perhaps even including one of Anthony Volpe, Jasson Dominguez, or Oswald Peraza — to match what others are bringing to trade talks.

If I had to name the most likely player to move at the deadline, I’d cast my pick for Castillo. The Reds have no intention of contending anytime soon, and with his value at a relative zenith, it’s hard to not see them cash in this summer. And with Luis Severino exiting his last start with right shoulder tightness and the results of his MRI pending, you have to think the need exists for the Yankees in the starting rotation. They’ll get a live look at Castillo in a few hours’ time, let’s hope they like what they see.