The Reds Turn a Weakness into a Strength

Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are forming a formidable one-two punch at the top of the pitching rotation.
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If you’ve paid even mild attention to the Reds in recent years, you know that Cincinnati’s pitching staff has been abysmal. Seriously, go play around with the FanGraphs leaderboards for pitching over the last four seasons combined. (Or, better yet, don’t do that and maintain some semblance of sanity.) No matter how you sort those numbers, from 2015 to 2018 the Reds haven’t just had the worst pitching staff in all of baseball—no other team has been particularly close.

 

After yet another last place finish behind a terrible pitching staff, Reds owner Bob Castellini famously declared during the off-season that the team was going to “get the pitching.” And get the pitching they did, as management acquired three new starters who gave fans at least some measure of hope for 2019.

Through 21 games, those pitchers have been one of the better staffs in baseball. But two of them—one holdover from the last couple of years and one newcomer—have been so good that it’s allowing me to dream a little about a one-two punch at the top of the Reds starting rotation that could be among the best in baseball for the foreseeable future. I’m talking, of course, about Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, both of whom been outstanding so far this season.

Castillo, in particular, has been dominant. Just over a year since tantalizing analysts with his ace potential, he’s finally begun to look the part. Check out this effusive praise before his last start:

Castillo takes the mound in San Diego tonight sporting a 1.46 ERA, 2.33 FIP and a 33.3% strikeout rate, and the metrics fueling those numbers suggest staying power. He’s all over the Statcast starting pitching leaderboards: Second in whiff-per-swing rate, third in ground-ball rate, 13th in hard-hit rate, and he’s yet to permit a single barrel (the most potent batted ball based on exit velocity and launch angle), let alone a home run.

Put all those factors together, and Castillo has looked like one of MLB’s best starters out of the gate. In fact, Statcast’s expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA, based on quality of contact and strikeouts) places Castillo second behind reigning American League Cy Young winner Blake Snell.

Castillo did give up his first homer of the season in that start in San Diego, but nothing else changed; he was still brilliant, allowing just one run on four hits and a walk, striking out nine over six strong innings. And if you glossed over all the nerd numbers above, permit me to simplify things for you: By almost any metric, Castillo has been perhaps the best starting pitcher in the National League.

How has he gotten out to such a strong start? Castillo is still throwing the same four pitches as he did last year (4-seam fastball, 2-seam fastball, changeup, slider), and his velocity doesn’t appear to be any different. The biggest difference is that he’s throwing his changeup much more often—this is something he actually started doing during the second half of the 2018 season—even with two-strike counts, and the changeup has been lights-out effective. In fact, no pitcher in baseball has recorded more strikeouts with any single pitch than Castillo’s changeup. He’s whiffed 35 hitters with just that pitch so far this season; Gerrit Cole (fastball) and Charlie Morton (curveball) are tied for second on that list, with 25 strikeouts each.

Pairing that elite changeup with a fastball that sits in the mid- to high-90s gives you a pitcher who often looks unhittable. A pitcher who often looks exactly like an ace, if I may be so bold.

Similarly, Gray has been one of the better pitchers in the league in his first experience in Cincinnati. He couldn’t make it out of the third inning in his first start, but he’s given fans nothing to complain about since that inauspicious debut, surrendering only seven runs in four starts. Even more impressive, Gray has struck out 31 hitters while walking only two during that span.

I just spent plenty of words talking about why I think Castillo is an ace. Well, consider this: Gray’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a statistic that essentially estimates what a pitcher’s ERA would look like if he had a league-average defense behind him, measuring the things that pitchers can actually control) is 1.97 through his first five starts. That’s the second-best mark in all of baseball and the best in the National League, just ahead of All-World hurler Max Scherzer.

Could this be the same Sonny Gray that flamed out in New York over a year and a half with the Yankees? Well, yes, though his total numbers were actually pretty close to league average during that span (that hideous 6.98 ERA in games at Yankee Stadium contributed mightily to the narrative regarding Gray). Still, he was certainly a far cry from the pitcher who was an All-Star and an ace (or at least ace-adjacent) after bursting on the scene with the Oakland Athletics.

So why should we believe that Gray, at age 29, is returning to form before our eyes? Perhaps there’s something to the narrative about the glare of Gotham that he isn’t dealing with in the Queen City, where the media tends to be comparatively soft on the city’s athletes. There are two more compelling reasons, in my view.

First, Gray was critical of the Yankees organization for insisting that he throw his slider more often. In the off-season, he went back to his alma mater (Vanderbilt), where his old college pitching coach and one of his former teammates took him back to the drawing board. The analysis: Gray was right, and he needs to be throwing his curve more often and the slider less (among other tweaks).

The other reason I think Gray is a great candidate for a bounceback season is the identity of the old college pitching coach and teammate I mentioned above. Derek Johnson, Cincinnati’s new pitching coach, was with Gray at Vanderbilt. The old college teammate who worked with Gray this winter was Caleb Cotham, who is now the Reds’ assistant pitching coach. Circumstances seem to be lining up that will, at the very least, give Gray every opportunity to recapture his old form. Early returns are encouraging.

Is Castillo going to finish this season as one of the top two or three starters in baseball, as he has been so far this season? That may be too much to ask, but there can be no question that he’s talented enough to be a legitimate ace pitcher for years to come. And Gray is right behind him in terms of results so far this year, even if we shouldn’t necessarily assume that he’ll be as good as Castillo going forward.

It’s beginning to look like an incredible one-two punch at the top of the Reds starting rotation, but I haven’t yet mentioned the reason I’m most excited about Castillo and Gray: They’re both going to be Reds for a long time. Gray signed an extension before the trade from New York that will keep him in Cincinnati for three years after this one. Castillo won’t be eligible for free agency for another year past that (if the Reds don’t lock him up long-term before then).

We’re very early in the season, and plenty could still go wrong that would alter this analysis. Perhaps I’m dreaming a bit, but I don’t think so. The Reds really could have one of the better one-two punches in the entire game. And that could be the key to the Reds being increasingly competitive over the next three years…and perhaps beyond.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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