The White Sox offense in Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Blue Jays amounted to two solo home runs by Welington Castillo. It was a shame, because Reynaldo Lopez’s impressive season debut — he allowed just one run on two hits while striking out six in six innings of work — was more than good enough to win until Danny Farquhar surrendered a pair of homers, including the go-ahead bomb to Russell Martin in the seventh inning.
I wrote Monday, after Castillo helped a struggling Lucas Giolito get through six innings and hit the go-ahead double in Saturday’s win over the Royals, about how big of a factor Castillo could be in the White Sox success after several years of sub-par play out of the catcher position, but on the heels of Monday’s pair of homers, it’s worth revisiting what the 30-year-old veteran could provide at a position where it’s very much needed.
It’s hard to over-emphasize how bad White Sox catching has been over the last two seasons. Last year, the combination of Omar Narvaez and Kevan Smith (and a sprinkle of Geovany Soto and Rob Brantly) was 27th in baseball in FRAA_ADJ — a catcher-specific stat that takes all the normal factors that goes into FRAA and adds in framing, throwing, and blocking contributions — at -16.5. Only the Rockies, Phillies, and Tigers were worse. Offensively, Narvaez and Smith ranked 25th and 28th, respectively, in TAv out of 33 catchers who had at least as many plate appearances as either guy. Brantly led the White Sox in WARP out of the catcher position at 0.27. He had 36 plate appearances.
Now, Castillo: The then-Orioles backstop combined mostly with Caleb Joseph to help Baltimore rank second in the majors in that same FRAA_ADJ category, behind only the Dodgers. His TAv of .272 ranked 10th out of those aforementioned 33 catchers, and he ranked ninth among catchers in WARP.
That’s a lot of stats I threw at you to simply say: The White Sox catching was bad last year. But it’s been a while since they had consistently above-average play at the position, and a combination of above-average offense and defense is tough to find in a catcher in general. Even before the last two seasons and the smorgasbord of bad offered by Narvaez, Smith, Dioner Navarro, and Alex Avila, the White Sox couldn’t put it all together. In Tyler Flowers’ last year in Chicago, he helped the White Sox to a top 10 finish in FRAA_ADJ, which was a big factor in his above-average 2.3 WARP season, but he was a black hole at the plate, posting a .295 OBP and a TAv that ranked 16th out of 22 catchers with at least as many plate appearances as him.
Game calling behind the plate is much tougher to quantify, but both Smith and Narvaez regularly drew on-the-record praise from White Sox pitchers last year, while Flowers, of course, was always a personal favorite of Chris Sale’s. Castillo is still TBD, of course, but some of his quotes about getting Giolito through Saturday’s start seemed insightful, to say the least.
“Right away in the first inning,” Castillo said when asked when he noticed things were off. “That’s a guy who has a plus changeup and can throw it any count. He wasn’t throwing it for a strike. He was pulling it. His breaking ball too, it’s really good and he wasn’t throwing it for strikes. He was pulling it. Even his fastball command wasn’t there. Sometimes you have to go for Plan B. Just try to get him through it. He was fighting.”
“That was my conversation with him,” Castillo said. “Trying to remind him all the time you gotta go up down and not side to side. If you go side to side your arm is going to drop and you won’t command any of your pitches. I just tried to remind him every pitch, every at-bat, every hitter that he faced. I tried to keep him in the game and that’s the best because he don’t have his good stuff and he pitched six innings. So that’s really good for him.”
So, if Castillo is so good, why did the White Sox get him for just 2 years and $15 million (with a team option for a third year at $8 million)? Besides the fact that it was a weird market, the fact that the White Sox could offer him a definitive starting job certainly played a factor. Beyond that, it could just be that, coming off easily the best season of his career, he still needs to prove he can do what he did over 341 plate appearances for a full season.
And, indeed, PECOTA projects regression from the 3.4 WARP he put up a season ago, pegging him at just 0.7 WARP this season and a return to below-average defense. That’s understandable. Castillo is 30 and had nearly 2,000 plate appearances to his credit coming into last season and had been worth a grand total of 4.5 WARP combined in his first seven seasons in the majors. Likewise, last year was the first where FRAA judged his defense as above-average. There was more than enough evidence that Castillo was nothing more than a replacement-level catcher that one season and ~300 plate appearances weren’t going to change that.
But catchers are weird, man. Nobody guessed that Flowers was suddenly going to become an offensive asset to go along with his superlative defense when he broke out for the Braves two years ago. It’s entirely possible that what Castillo did for the Orioles in 2017 is closer to the new norm for him after all the work he put in to improve himself defensively.
We often get wrapped up in our dreams of the future; of when the next hot White Sox prospect is going to debut and what the lineup and starting rotation could look like in 2020 and beyond. Zack Collins is far from a sure thing as a prospect, and even if he pans out offensively and sticks behind the plate, he’s still a few years away from contributing at the major league level. If Castillo proves that what he did in 2017 is the player he now is, as opposed to a fluky outlier in an otherwise forgettable career, it will be a coup for a team that’s struggled to find consistency behind the plate for a long time. And it will undoubtedly make the White Sox better in 2018.
Lead Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro – USA Today Sports Images