Every day throughout the year I focus on writing about, learning about, watching and reading about minor league baseball. I’ve been doing that, almost every day for the last 12 years. Yes, that probably makes me a crazy person. But it’s also led to learning things that when I first started writing about minor league baseball (way back in January of 2006), I wasn’t as tuned in with as I am now.
One of the bigger things that has become apparent is that the development of players isn’t a straight line. It’s not linear. For some guys, it is. Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw – the truly elite guys who reach the Major Leagues at 19-20-years-old, in this group of guys, you probably do see more of a linear development than you will anywhere else. Those guys, however, are the true outliers.
The rule, however, is that most guys have ups-and-downs as they develop. Most guys have ups-and-downs once they reach the Major Leagues. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but baseball is a game of adjustments. Ok, so you’ve probably all heard someone say that before, probably multiple times. It is these adjustments, though, that can be very key for the development of a player. And those adjustments and changes are things that I want to look at today, specifically in regards to two pitchers that are currently with the big league club.
Luis Castillo joined the Reds organization this past offseason. Robert Stephenson has been with the organization since they drafted him in the 1st round of 2011. Luis Castillo stepped right into the Major Leagues and saw success from the beginning. Robert Stephenson saw some real struggles in 2016 and the first half of 2017 as a big leaguer. The two players are almost the same age – born only three months apart. Their development, however, has been quite different.
Robert Stephenson was a big time prospect from day 1. He was a first round draft pick who got paid big money. For his entire career as a minor leaguer he was ranked among the organization’s top five prospects. Early in his career, the numbers were strong. Once he reached Double-A things began to take a step backwards, particularly with his control. That is the point in which the real adjustments started to happen for the right hander.
When he was drafted, Robert Stephenson had a 4-seam fastball, a split-fingered change up and a curveball. The organization made him drop the splitter and focus on a more standard change up immediately. He stuck with that for a few years, but the pitch never really got to the point that it was a successful offering. In Double-A he began to tinker with a 2-seam fastball as well as a split-fingered fastball again. The velocity dropped as a result, but the splitter became a strong pitch almost immediately. The control, however, was still a bit of an issue.
Eventually the 2-seamer experiment went away and he began to throw the 4-seamer again. The control, however, didn’t show much improvement. For Robert Stephenson, the ability, or inability to throw strikes consistently has been the biggest thing holding him back. However, it wasn’t the only thing. The team felt he needed to alter his stuff, too. He scrapped multiple pitches along the way. He picked up a pitch in the minors.
And then 2017 came and the Reds made a decision to place Robert Stephenson in the bullpen to begin the year. When he pitched on a regular basis, he was actually successful. But he too often went 4+ days between relief appearances and when that happened he got absolutely lit up. After two months the team decided he needed more consistent work and sent him back to Triple-A where he started every five days.
While the consistent work certainly helped, the team also told him that he needed to throw more strikes. And he absolutely did. In 40.1 innings for the Bats he walked just 13 batters and he struck out 45. The control was improving, but that was just one change he was making. While down in Triple-A he was also in the process of developing a slider, too.
If you’ve been watching Robert Stephenson since he returned to the Major Leagues in late July you’ve probably noticed the pitch. It’s essentially replaced his curveball. Between 2016 and the first half of 2017 in the Major Leagues, he had thrown his curveball 20% of the time and a slider just 4% of the time. Since his return his curveball has been thrown only 3% of the time and his slider has been thrown 28% of the time. And the results have followed, too.
Things aren’t there yet for him. He will still battle control at times, and that’s going to be worth keeping an eye on. But, what we have seen are the improvements. We’ve seen the development. And it’s been a long process that’s been full of ups-and-downs over the years.
For Luis Castillo, it’s been a very different journey. He signed with the San Francisco Giants as a 19-year-old with little fanfare. Despite his advanced age, the Giants placed him in the Dominican Summer League for both of his first two seasons. He was successful in limited action, but worked out of the bullpen in both seasons.
At age 21 the Giants finally brought him to the United States and got aggressive, pushing him right past rookie ball and throwing him into Low-A. Once again as a reliever he was successful, but for the third year in a row was not among the organization’s Top 30 prospects according to Baseball America.
Following that season he was traded to the Miami Marlins for Casey McGehee. The Marlins sent Castillo, now 22-years-old, back to the same Low-A league that he had played in the year prior, despite posting a 3.07 ERA with 25 walks and 66 strikeouts in 58.2 innings pitched. Through both April and May he worked exclusively out of the bullpen, but he was throwing multiple innings more often than he wasn’t. Only two outings were more than 2.0 innings, though.
That June, however, he moved into the starting rotation for the first time in his life and he saw immediate success, statistically. He would make seven starts before being promoted to the Florida State League. His ERA was good, 3.50 the rest of the season, but his strikeout rate took a big dip, falling off 30% from where it was before.
The transition had begun, but it wasn’t quite a smooth one. The next year he returned to the Florida State League and the numbers improved quite a bit. The walk rate, which had always been good, became elite. His strikeout rate improved over the year prior, but it was still a bit lower than you’d like to see. He even earned a late season promotion to Double-A where he threw 14.0 innings.
After that season he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. When he was acquired, the scouting reports basically said this: Blazing fastball, slider with plus potential but it’s currently inconsistent, and a feel for a change up that could be average. The report sounded good, and the numbers the previous year were strong.
The Reds sent Luis Castillo to Double-A Pensacola to begin the year. While there things began to change. All of a sudden, his change up which was considered easily the worst of his three offerings began to improve. Before you knew it the change up was being labeled as a plus pitch. That’s a significant jump for a pitch to take in a very short amount of time.
As a result of that newly developed plus change up the strikeouts followed. In bunches. The now 24-year-old posted a 2.58 ERA in 80.1 innings for the Blue Wahoos with 81 strikeouts. He then skipped right over Triple-A and joined the Reds rotation and barely skipped a beat. In 15 starts with the Reds he threw 89.1 innings with a 3.12 ERA, 32 walks and 98 strikeouts.
Both players took very different roads from where they were at the beginning of their careers to the point that they are at today. Robert Stephenson experienced more ups-and-downs than Luis Castillo did, but both guys saw their development change throughout their career. It wasn’t a straight line to success. There were some hiccups along the way. There were changes made for each over the years. The odds are that as they both continue to move forward with their careers that more changes will be made.
While it is great when you get a player who steps into the professional ranks and doesn’t have any set backs along the way to stardom, that’s incredibly rare. Even guys like Joey Votto had some stops along the way that made him re-evaluate and change his game. It takes time and many adjustments along the way for the very large majority of players. While the Reds rebuild isn’t going fast enough for everyone, we are starting to see the possible light at the end of the tunnel late in 2017 with some of the young players stepping up. It’s worth remembering that progression and development isn’t linear and that it’s going to be a process that takes time for most players. Patience is a virtue, my friends.