It’s a simple concept, but one that’s easy to overlook and underappreciate. It’s also a notion that the Red Sox have little choice but to embrace as they imagine the possible contributions of a player such as Rusney Castillo, who is trying to establish himself in the major leagues.
Last season, Castillo was one of two players in the majors who did not have a single extra-base hit in 50 at-bats that concluded against pitches of 93 miles per hour or faster. His line against heaters of 93 or greater was .203/.230/.203.
That represents a source of concern in a baseball landscape that has transformed pitches of 93 or greater from impressive to commonplace. Ryan Morrison, writing for Baseball Prospectus, examines Castillo’s struggles against power pitchers, and wonders if they are a product of the limited number of pitchers with high velocity that are typically found in Cuba.
The consequences for the Red Sox if Castillo can’t handle power pitchers could be considerable. One need only examine the AL East to recognize the potential drawbacks.
The Yankees are loaded with high-velocity pitchers, from Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino to the bullpen trio of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances. Rays ace Chris Archer averaged 95.2 on his fastball last year, the sixth-highest velocity in the game. Orioles breakout candidate Kevin Gausman throws even harder, averaging 95.3. Toronto’s Marcus Stroman averaged just 92, but has plenty more in the tank.
The Sox’ AL East opponents are very righthanded (the only projected lefty starters on the Yankees, Orioles, and Blue Jays are CC Sabathia in New York and J.A. Happ in Toronto) and feature a number of hard throwers. If Castillo struggles against that demographic, it’s not hard to imagine his playing time dwindling if the Red Sox have better alternatives.
Red Sox fourth outfielder Chris Young, by contrast, hit .238/.290/.349 against heaters of 93 or greater — better, but still well short of the major league average of .268/.340/.422.
The Sox’ standout hitter against pitchers with velocity in 2015? That would be Jackie Bradley Jr., who hit .333/.439/.745 against fastballs that were 93 m.p.h. or greater, with his 1.184 OPS ranking third in the majors.
That’s significant, not just in terms of featuring a potential threat against pitchers who work with impressive velocity, but also for the reminder that it offers when assessing a player such as Castillo. Those excellent 2015 marks came one year after Bradley was one of the worst hitters in the big leagues against high-velocity pitchers, as he posted a .181/.286/.208 line against pitches of 93 m.p.h. or faster in 2014.
By contrast, Hanley Ramirez hit .194/.257/.224 against fastballs of 93 or faster last year — a noteworthy decline even from his marks of .269/.352/.409 in 2014, and yet another indication of the potential impact that his shoulder injury might have had on forcing him to cheat (often unsuccessfully) to get to fastballs.
The numbers regarding a player’s effectiveness against a certain pitch type can be volatile, a reminder of the fantastic cat-and-mouse dynamics at the heart of the game.
As the Red Sox try to unravel the mystery of Castillo, to figure out whether he’s an everyday player or a fourth outfielder, it likely won’t take long for them to discern an answer once the curtain lifts on the regular season.
If he’s able to make the sort of adjustments from one year to the next that Bradley did, then given his defense, he’ll make a compelling case as a valuable regular. If he continues to get overmatched by big fastballs — of which the Sox will see plenty in a season-opening series in Cleveland that will feature Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and more — then the team may have little choice but to explore its alternatives.