It feels like a distant memory at this point, but not so long ago the Orioles were a good, competitive team. A huge reason for that success was a lock-down bullpen. Major league relief corps are bound to undergo changes; that’s just their nature. But the O’s were able to hold together a solid trio of Zach Britton, Darren O’Day and Brad Brach for much longer than usual. This past July, all three were traded away, leaving the team to rebuild the unit and fit the remaining players into new roles. For Miguel Castro, at least, finding the right role is taking some time.
Castro has been a big leaguer, off and on, since 2015, so he seems older, but the right-hander is still just 23 (he turns 24 on December 24). He came to the Orioles on April 7, 2017 when they sent a “player to be named later” (Jon Keller, now retired) to the Rockies. Ever since then, questions about when Castro should pitch have bounced around the club. His fastball would play up out of the pen. But he also has good enough secondary pitches that could get hitters out multiple times as a starter. Decisions, decisions.
What role the Orioles have given Castro, so far, is that of a reliever who has made two spot starts and regularly throws more than one inning per outing. The results have been mixed. In 2017, he had a decent 3.53 ERA and 125 ERA+ but he also only struck out 38 batters while walking 28 in 66.1 innings. Some of those poorer peripherals have come back to bite him in 2018 as he has a 4.08 ERA and 104 ERA+ while striking out 54 and walking 49 in 79.1 innings.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter uses Castro a lot. In fact, his 76.2 innings as a reliever are the fourth most in all of baseball behind the Rays’ Ryan Yarbrough (104.2), the Athletics’ Yusmeiro Petit (86.0), and the Cubs’ Jesse Chavez (84.1). Castro’s background is quite different than those other three. Yarbrough was a starter all the way through the minors and is used to pitching so many innings. Petit and Chavez are both in their mid-30s with long track records in the bigs. The Orioles reliever probably shouldn’t be competing with them for innings just yet.
One could make the argument that Showalter should back off of Castro for the rest of the season, or even contemplate shutting him down completely. His performance has gotten worse each month, going from a 2.87 ERA in June to 4.15 in July and 9.75 in August before an improvement (1.59) so far in September. He threw 90.2 total innings last season, but amassed just 30.1 in 2016 and 37.1 the year before that. This is also the first season he has ever spent completely in the majors, not to mention how brutally hot and humid it was in Baltimore. This is a young guy still learning what it takes to maintain a certain level of performance at the game’s highest level. He might just be tired.
The argument for shutting him down is two-fold. First, Castro is expected to be a fairly important member of the Orioles pitching staff for a few years. They know enough about him and could do well to get him a few extra weeks of rest. Second, it opens up a handful of innings to someone like Ryan Meisinger, Cody Carroll or Evan Phillips to give the club more information on less experienced arms.
Castro has made 57 appearances out of the Orioles bullpen this year, 29 have required him to get four or more outs. In those outings he has pitched to a nice 3.05 ERA. However, it may not be the number of outs he is asked to get, but rather the amount of rest he is given in between appearances that makes for more effective performances.
The sweet spot for Castro seems to be three days of rest. When given that amount of time to recuperate, he is holding opposing hitters to a .218/.328/.309 batting line and has a minute 1.20 ERA. More often, he is given only one or two days of rest at which point he seems to struggle and become more hittable. To Showalter’s credit, he has held rather firm on his refusal to throw pitchers on back-to-back days with Castro appearing in consecutive games just four times this season.
So, what is the answer? How do the Orioles make the most of Castro’s talents in the future? Let’s put the pieces together:
He excels with throwing more than one inning and pitching on three days of rest. However, he has limited experience as a starter and the team does not seem overly interested in making him a part of the rotation.
Meanwhile, the O’s have a few young pitchers that have been auditioning as starters who do pretty well the first time through an MLB order but struggle thereafter. Yefry Ramirez has a 2.95 ERA in his first time against a group of hitters, Jimmy Yacabonis has a 2.00 ERA, even David Hess’s 3.71 ERA isn’t too bad.
The Rays have had a lot of success with their “openers”. How many people expected them to be a winning team this season? They are well on their way to doing just that, and with few easily recognizable names on their roster.
The Orioles are in a perfect situation to copy the Rays, and maybe even do it better. This could be a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. What happens when Ramirez, Yacabonis, Hess, or others like them, pitch? They do fine early on and then start to struggle in the middle innings. Eliminate the middle innings altogether by pulling them after two or three good frames, then hand the ball to Castro for two or three more. It wouldn't solve all of the Orioles pitching woes, but it could potentially fix one-fifth, or possible two-sixths if you want Castro pitching twice a week, of a rotation.
This gives Castro a set schedule. He doesn’t need to guess when he will pitch. He knows that every three days or so, he will be getting the ball. It allows him to rest and prepare while also utilizing the talents of fringe-y hurlers in the high minors.
It’s a different way of thinking, and the Rays are the first team to try it out for such an extended time. It could prove to be a poor strategy long term, but the Orioles desperately need to think outside the box, especially when it comes to pitching, because whatever they are doing right now does not work.