As far as Orioles fans are concerned, there’s always been a consistent question with Miguel Castro. And last Wednesday, it was time to ask it again.
That was the night Castro came on for the ninth inning with the Orioles ahead of Toronto 9-5 and, to put it simply, imploded. He gave up six runs, four coming on a grand slam, and left with the Orioles trailing 10-9.
So back came the question: Just what do the Orioles have in Castro? Do they have a late-game, high-leverage guy, or do they have another mediocre arm for another mediocre bullpen, and an ideal fit for mop-up duty and garbage innings?
The Orioles gave Castro, only 24 years old, every chance this season to prove that he could be a bullpen anchor - a position at which the O’s have consistently done well, from Jim Johnson to Zack Britton to Darren O’Day to Mychal Givens - and the results have been...well, it depends on what you’re looking at.
Overall, Castro is 1-3 with a 4.73 ERA, but it’s difficult to draw a distinct conclusion given just the overall stats. In the first half of the season — and the early spring, in particular — outings like last Wednesday’s were common. He had an 8.59 ERA for the month of April and one outing in March. From May 16 to June 15 - a total of 13 appearances - his ERA was 5.82. For the first half overall, he pitched to a 5.28 ERA, and batters hit .262 against him.
There’s also the matter of circumstantial performance. According to Baseball Reference, Castro has looked a lot better over the course of the season in low-pressure situations than high-pressure ones. In what the site deems low-leverage appearances, Castro has permitted only a .650 OPS. In high-leverage outings, that figure spikes to .894.
So, that’s that, right? Can’t be trusted in the big moment when the opponent is scratching and clawing for that tying or go-ahead run?
Well, in the second half, he’s 1-2 with a 3.86 ERA, and he’s come on strong as the season’s entered its home stretch. If you disregard that Wednesday outing and call it just a bad day at a bad time, he’s got a 1.89 ERA for August and September, a span covering 20 outings, and he’s allowed a measly .156 average and .517 OPS. According to a tweet provided by Orioles beat reporter Joe Trezza, he’s improved remarkably over the course of the year. And let’s not forget, he had the look of a proven commodity coming into the season with ERAs of 3.53 in 2017 and 3.96 in 2018.
So, he is the right pick for the late innings, after all? He just got off to a rotten start?
It’s easy to understand why Castro seems like such a fit for the responsibilities of a set-up man or closer. He has a motion that produces what looks like easy high-90s heat, and a quality breaking ball to go with it, one that he’s been throwing more as his performance has improved. He looks the part. He looks like someone who can go out there and overpower hitters.
But looks with Castro are deceiving. Despite having an arsenal that should be conducive to strikeouts, Castro doesn’t often get them. He struck out only 38 in 66.1 innings in 2017, 57 in 86.1 innings last season and 71 in 73.1 innings this year - a decent number, but one that pales in comparison to, say, Mychal Givens, who’s whiffed 83 in 60.1 innings of what he would still call a disappointing season.
In that sense, Castro bears a resemblance to someone like Joe Kelly, a power pitcher who doesn’t get a power pitcher’s results. Kelly reached 100 miles per hour frequently with the Red Sox, but struck out only 278 in 298 innings in his four full seasons with the team. He threw smoke, but he threw it straight, and major league hitters can hit straight fastballs.
Kelly, however, could be a model for what the Orioles hope they have with Castro. In last year’s playoffs, Kelly overnight became a weapon, who suddenly was missing bats and overwhelming the hitters who previously hadn’t had trouble barreling up his heat. In the World Series — granted, small sample size — he fanned 10 batters in six innings over five scoreless outings. Now a Dodger, he’s kept it up, punching out a career-high 11 per nine innings this season.
When you throw hard, the line between being hit and being unhittable becomes thinner and easier to cross, and that’s why Castro could be an ideal pick to return to a high-leverage role, even with the returns of Givens and Hunter Harvey, who fit right in as an explosive late-inning guy in the second half this season.
There definitely seems to be potential there. There’s work to be done — Castro could stand to add a little more sink to his fastball, or movement even if it comes at the cost of a mile or two of velocity — but it’s a better option than giving the duties to someone like Shawn Armstrong, who might simply not have the arsenal to pitch in the toughest spots, or Dillon Tate, who might not have the seasoning and experience.
And to his credit, Castro’s case for a late-inning job isn’t resting on one hot week or one dominant outing. His improvement is over a long period of time, and it’s apparently been the result of changes he’s made, rather than just having things go his way for a few days.
He’s someone Orioles fans can feel optimistic, even excited, about next season. If he finds himself back in the eighth or ninth innings again next spring, he’ll at least have earned that.