Anybody who has watched more than a couple of Orioles games this season knows that their bullpen is really bad. We didn’t expect it to be a strength, as the group had some question marks surrounding it coming into the season. But we also didn’t expect them to post an ERA of nearly seven entering Wednesday night’s game. Our Harrison Jozwiak broke down some of the problems in the Orioles’ pen last week.
One of the biggest disappointments amongst O’s relievers in 2019 has been Miguel Castro. Despite being only 24 years old, he had four seasons of MLB experience entering this season was is one of the bullpen’s veterans. He’s enjoyed success in previous seasons, posting sub-4.00 ERA’s in the past two seasons. His success was such that the Orioles considered making him a starter in the past. This spring, he gave up only one run in 8.1 innings of Grapefruit League action. Castro was one of the relievers Brandon Hyde expected to count on this season.
That hasn’t happened. In 9.2 innings of work, Castro has allowed ten earned runs, good for a 9.31 ERA. His WHIP is 1.862 and he’s allowed three homers. Of his eight appearances, he has turned in a scoreless outing in only three. There are not really any positives to find in Castro’s 2019.
Why is Miguel Castro struggling so much? How can a pitcher who has experienced past success and has such a hard fastball have an ERA over 9? One thing that doesn’t explain his troubles is velocity. So far in 2019, the radar gun readings don’t raise alarms. In fact, his average velocity of 97.3 is up from last year’s 95.9. Likewise, his slider is also up 1.4 MPH. His arm is strong.
It also isn’t the case that one side of the plate is killing Castro this season. When it comes to giving up runs, he has been an equal opportunity provider. Last season he gave up a .230/.338/.332 slash line to right-handed batters and a .244/.357/.420 to lefties. This season, it’s been .333/.400/.600 to righties and .300/.364/.600 to lefties. While the increased success that right-handers have had against him is especially alarming, he’s been terrible against both sides of the plate and will need to improve both sets of numbers.
So what has changed? As is expected by the ugly increase in his statistics, opponents are hitting the ball harder off of him. The average exit velocity against him this season is 92.8 MPH, which is in the bottom 7% in the league. That is up from his career average of 86.9 MPH. This is a result of the 12.1% of balls put in play against him being “barrelled”, up from 7.2% last season. In short, the opposition is hitting the ball very hard on Castro pitches.
Not only are batters hitting Castro harder, but they are hitting him more consistently. The percentage of swings at pitches in the strike zone that make contact against Castro pitches is an astonishingly high 94%. That is up 12% from last year. The overall contact rate against Castro this season is 80.8%, up 3% from 2018.
This could be explained by several factors. First of all, the vertical movement on Castro’s fastball has decreased in the past three years.
While the fastball’s horizontal movement has remained constant since 2017, the vertical movement has moved slightly closer to zero. That is a troubling trend and could be responsible for the opposition squaring up more of his pitches. After all, the difference between barreling a pitch and not is very small. The Orioles, especially with their newfound devotion to analytics and information, surely are aware of this and working to correct it.
Another reason for this could be that Castro’s pitches are less diverse this season. He used his changeup 15.7% of the time in 2018. It is a valuable offspeed pitch that pairs well with his fastball and slider and keeps hitters off balance. But in 2019’s limited sample size, he has thrown it on only 3.9% of his pitches. The reason for this has not been disclosed. But it essentially makes Castro a two-pitch pitcher and gives hitters a better idea of what’s coming, making it easier to barrel up a pitch.
Another notable difference in Castro’s performance this year is that he is throwing less strikes. He never did a great job of filling up the strike zone, with his career strike rate sitting at 44.2%. But this season, it is 40.8%. Castro is especially having a tough time finding the zone with his slider. This can be visualized when comparing the map of his 2019 slider and his 2018 slider. This is another way that Castro is making things easier for the opposing offense this season.
While Castro is struggling to find the zone overall this season, he is getting killed on balls he throws right down the middle (meatballs). His meatball rate of 6.1% is actually down a point from last season. But the rate that opponents swing at his meatballs is up from 76.2% to 90.9%. When Castro makes a mistake this season, hitters are jumping on it.
Sometimes bad luck is the reason behind a pitcher’s poor start. That is not the case with Miguel Castro. He is losing movement on his fastball, throwing fewer strikes, allowing harder and more consistent contact, and seeing hitters jump on mistakes.
While these figures are very troubling, the season is young and the sample size is very small. Castro could turn things around and return to his 2017 form. We need to hope for that, because he is an important piece of their roster. The bullpen is already taxed because the starting rotation isn’t working deep in games. Castro’s ability to pitch multiple innings is especially valuable on this club. But he won’t be able to go multiple innings per outing if he keeps giving up runs at the rate he is now.