Tipping Pitches: On Newcomb and Castillo

Sean Newcomb finally had his first bad start of the season and unsurprisingly it came against the Houston Astros. They are third in wOBA against lefties at .347 and also have the third-lowest strikeout rate at 17%, a tough combo for the 24-year old rookie. Newcomb has actually shown a reverse platoon this year so six of the eight batters coming from the right side wasn’t necessarily a warning sign. Being Astros was the warning sign, let’s be real.

Anyway, the fastball wasn’t working so he went to the secondary stuff, only to find that it wasn’t working, either.

Pitch Usage & Results v. RHB

  • First 4 Starts: 71% fastball, 26% curve, 3% changeup
  • First 4: .377 OPS w/fastball, .161 w/curve, 1.100 w/changeup (5 PA)
  • HOU: 57% fastball, 30% curve, 13% changeup
  • HOU: 1.571 w/fastball, 2.067 w/curve, 1.33 w/changeup

He threw just 40% of his fastballs in the zone (57% prior to this start), yielding a 63% strike rate with the pitch, which was unsurprisingly also a season-low. Even when Newcomb got ahead, the Astros righties punished him. Putting away righties in the first four starts was a key driver of his success with a paltry .216 OPS in 37 PA when ahead in the count. On Tuesday, he allowed a 1.571 OPS in 7 PA where he was ahead.

Look, we knew Newcomb was going to have a dud outing eventually, but at least it came against an elite team. I wouldn’t take too much from this single outing, just as I wasn’t making sharp judgments about who he is from the first four starts. The young lefty has no doubt impressed with a strong fastball and plus curve, but he hasn’t been shown much else so if either of those is off, he’s in trouble right now. Both were off against the Astros.

He hits the road for Washington in his next start on Sunday, so things aren’t exactly getting easier for Newcomb. They are 7th in wOBA with a .331 mark, though their 611 PA are second-fewest in the league. The Nationals have the league’s best wOBA against lefty fastballs at .402 with just a 15% strikeout rate and 11% walk rate. I would not be starting Newcomb here, but I remain a big fan in the long-term.

I’ve never been shy about my shortcomings when it comes to prospects, particularly those in the lower minors who aren’t charting on Top 100 lists. I just don’t have the bandwidth to always stay on top of players in Double-A or lower if they aren’t stud prospects. Throw in the fact that I didn’t do the Starting Pitcher Guide this year and that’s how I had virtually no clue about Luis Castillo.

I knew the name. I knew he was part of the botched Andrew Cashner deal with San Diego that originally sent him from Miami to SD, but then back to Miami when Colin Rea turned out to be injured and there was all that sketchiness about the medicals. That story got a refresh in the winter when Castillo was again traded, this time to Cincinnati in the Dan Straily deal. So I “knew” about Castillo. I knew he was a pitcher who’d been traded twice. That was it. Researching him for this piece has made me aware that he was originally with the Giants and they dealt him with Kendry Flores for Casey McGehee. I know we’ve seen a whopping three starts, but imagine Castillo with the Giants in that park.

Perhaps you’re still unfamiliar with Castillo, so let me formally introduce with help from my friends at The Pitcher List:

His 97.8 mph fastball is second to only Noah Syndergaard (98.2) this year (min. 10 IP). Even if you put relievers in the mix, he’s still 16th with the ninth-highest total if you account for ties (list). Throwing 100 mph BBs is a… I guess that’s confusing since BB means walk, I’m talking about like a BB gun. I should probably just delete this part… alas, I’m not going to do that. Anyway, painting at 100 mph isn’t all he does. In fact, his fastball draws the attention, but it’s been his worst pitch as a big leaguer so far.

He backs it up with an 88-mph changeup (19% usage) and 85-mph slider (13%), pitches that have aided him to a passable 4.41 ERA through his first three starts. Let’s be clear, the high-octane fastball has garnered attention, but this is still very much a raw arm. While he is 24 years old, he’d only reached Double-A before skipping to the majors after 80.3 strong innings with Pensacola (26% K, 4% BB, & 15% SwStr). Outside of the 4.41 ERA, he has a hideous 1.71 WHIP, 12% BB rate, and 2.8 HR/9 (5 in 16.3 IP).

When he’s behind in the count, the opposition is absolutely murdering the fastball. It’s a tiny sample, but it’s really bad. Among the 349 pitchers with at least 14 PA ending on a hitter’s count, Castillo’s 2.563 OPS is worse than everyone than Jerry Blevins (2.617 in 15 PA). Even Francisco Rodriguez is only at 2.181 in 18 PA. His fastball when ahead is better, but still not great. League average on fastballs when ahead is a .546 OPS and Castillo is at .632 in 19 PA. The fastball has to get a lot better if we’re going to see any sustained success here.

The secondary pitches have been fantastic in their limited sample so if they maintain and he improves the fastball, we could have something special on our hands.

  • Changeup: .143/.188/.143, 44% K, 6% BB in 16 PA
  • Slider: .111/.111/.111, 44% K, 0% BB in 9 PA

We have countless examples of how velocity doesn’t guarantee success so while it’s easy to be hyped on the heat, we can’t let it cloud our judgment. I’m in on Castillo right now and I even scooped him in a league where I have to start him this week (at COL, at ARI) because of the premium velocity and two reliable secondary offerings, but it’s a short leash situation right now.

His raw stuff and the ability to wiggle out of jams (96% LOB) has saved his ERA thus far, but a 10.5 H/9 and 2.8 HR/9 will catch up to a guy eventually if he doesn’t improve. Based on the schedule, it’d be best to see Castillo slotted in the fourth of fifth slot out of the All-Star break. Regardless of where he slots, he’s getting Washington or Arizona at home in his first start, but if he’s in one of those last two spots then he’ll get a home-and-home with Miami and then a trip to Pittsburgh while one of the top two slots would have him facing Washington and Arizona

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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I’m riding with Castillo. He dominated AA this season and the high-octane nature of his arm makes the upside too difficult to resist, even if he lacks polish.

3.53 xFIP through three career starts. 98 MPH fastball. 62% GB rate. 14.2% swinging strike rate. Not sure why everyone wouldn’t be jumping on that.

Mario Mendoza
Mario Mendoza

40/45 command