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Miguel Castro in position for bounce-back season in 2020

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The hard-throwing reliever pitched better than the stats suggest in 2019. If he can sidestep the big mistakes, Castro could be a key asset in 2020.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Los Angeles Angels Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a hardened-enough Orioles fan that you sat through one agonizing loss after another last season, you saw your fair share of headaches.

One happened to stand 6 feet, 7 inches tall, touch 100 miles an hour, and often have to turn around and watch those fastballs get smacked the other way, either up the middle, into the gap or over the wall.

It was a bad 2019 for the Orioles, and it wasn’t a much better season for Miguel Castro, who stumbled early and never got his stats back to a respectable point. The final numbers for the hard-throwing Dominican were a 1-3 record, along with three blown saves and a 4.66 ERA.

Some of the projections for this season expect more of the same. Fangraphs’s ATC projections have Castro at 2-4 with a 4.60 ERA. Baseball Reference’s have him with a 4.37 ERA.

Looking at Castro’s career, however, reveals plenty of evidence to suggest that 2019 was a fluke, a simple bad season, and not a harbinger of things to come.

Castro has never been the force his high-octane arsenal would suggest he’d be, but he’s been pretty decent since arriving in Baltimore at the start of the 2017 season. Freed from Colorado and Coors Field (not that Camden Yards is exactly Dodger Stadium), Castro pitched to a 3.53 ERA in his first season. In 2018, Castro’s ERA climbed nearly half a run to 3.96. It made an even bigger jump to the 4.66 mark last season.

On the surface, that looks like a pitcher who’s getting worse as he reached his mid-20s, but a convincing case can be made that Castro was better last year than he was the year before.

For one, Castro finally looked more like the overpowering pitcher someone with the ability to hit triple digits should be. After striking out only 5.9 batters per nine in 2018 — which was an improvement from 5.2 the year before — Castro fanned 14 more hitters in 13 fewer innings, and his K-per-9 jumped up nearly three whole batters to 8.7.

His batting average against went down (from .234 to .227). His WHIP went down (1.448 to 1.418). And his strikeouts per walk went up (1.14 to 1.73).

So why did the ERA take such a hit?

An Associated Press article implied that Castro’s ineffectiveness stemmed from a lack of control. If it meant wildness, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The WHIP went down, as did the walks per nine. Castro by and large was as good at keeping the ball in the zone as he was the year before, though his WHIP and walks per nine were considerably better in 2017.

Command in the zone, however, is something different. Lack of control in the strike zone means missing spots. Missing spots means home runs. And certainly, Castro was hurt by the big hit more last year than ever before.

Castro has allowed hits at a consistent rate with the Orioles (7.2 per nine in 2017, then 7.8 in 2018, and 7.7 last year), but the hits did more damage last year. His FIP (fielding independent pitching), which measures outcomes the fielders have no hand in, went down from 5.11 to 4.73. That would indicate he was worse at striking batters out, walking hitters and/or keeping the ball in the yard. Seeing as he struck hitters out at a higher clip and his walk rate didn’t change, that leaves one area that got considerably worse.

To confirm it, Castro’s home run-to-fly ball rate was his worst yet as an Oriole, 14.3 percent after 11.8 in 2017 and 10.6 last year. Castro was, from a numbers standpoint, the same pitcher he was in previous seasons, and in some ways better.

His mistakes were costlier. No two ways about it. And that creates a general feeling of inconsistency from a pitcher. There’s a reason Zack Britton felt as consistent as any pitcher the Orioles have had in years. The ball never left the park. Teams had to work and work to get a run across on him, and even if they were getting hits, they were often getting three outs before they could string them together into a run or two.

Britton always got the job done because his margin of error was so high. Castro’s wasn’t last year, and a result, it felt like the blow-up was always around the corner.

The Orioles have made a concerted effort to rely more on analytics, and it would be good to see that approach reveal a way for Castro to combat this flaw. Perhaps it’s by adding movement to his fastball, as major league hitters are never going to be fooled by 100 miles an hour if it’s straight as an arrow. Perhaps it’s by adding a little more movement to his breaking balls. Perhaps it’s by improving that command in the zone, so pitches aren’t drifting into the barrel of the bat.

And perhaps Castro is closer than his overall stats suggest. He was hurt more by a horrid start last year than he was by season-long mediocrity, as he had a 9.95 ERA and .345 batting average against in April, but then had a 3.00 ERA, .195 batting average against and .627 OPS against in next 50 appearances, a stretch covering May, June, July, August and most of September.

A bad outing against Toronto in his second-to-last appearance provided a sour ending note, but that’s one game that shouldn’t hurt the overall impression that Castro turned a corner during the season, and was pitching like someone in whom the Orioles should have confidence this spring.

He just needs to keep the ball in play. If he does, with Mychal Givens and Hunter Harvey also in the mix, the Orioles could see the bullpen become a strength this summer.