When the Rays were in the process of raiding the Cubs then thin farm system for Matt Garza, they were pretty much given the choice of one of two minor league catchers. Internally the Cubs were split as to which one they preferred to keep, so it seems they were going to have the Rays decide who the Cubs of the future catcher was by default.
It turns out the Rays chose wisely....for the Cubs.
Not surprisingly, they opted to go with the more disciplined Robinson Chirinos over the wild swinging, defensively erratic Welington Castillo. There was always the feeling that Castillo was the more talented player. He was compared even very early in his minor league career to a certain Cardinals catcher. But the consensus was that he carried much more risk and had a significantly smaller chance of reaching that kind of potential.
What was underestimated here was Castillo's work ethic. He went to work all offseason with coaches Chris Bosio on his game calling and Mike Borzello on refining some of those raw skills behind the plate. As a former infielder, he had the quickness and lateral movement to block pitches, but not the proper technique. Now he is the best in baseball according to his manager,
“We throw a lot at that kid, and he’s come a long way,” Sveum said. “There ain’t nobody better blocking the ball than he is”
There are all kinds of defensive metrics to support Sveum's casual assessment and some of those metrics are provided by Baseball Info Solutions. They illustrate his value by comparing him to Indians' catcher Carlos Santana,
Castillo has blocked 551 pitches in the dirt this year against just 28 wild pitches, a 95 percent block rate. By comparison, Indians’ catcher/first baseman Carlos Santana has allowed 42 wild pitches this year against only 255 catcher blocks (86 percent). To put it another way, Santana would have to block another 572 consecutive pitches in the dirt without allowing a single wild pitch to match Castillo’s block rate. While it’s not difficult to compare favorably to Santana defensively, BIS estimates that Castillo has saved the Cubs 10 runs on Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays (carried largely by his pitch blocking). Santana, on the other hand, has cost the Indians 7.
But we cannot forget the all-around ability he has shown behind the dish, which Sveum has also lauded,
"Obviously, he can throw. The way he calls games. There’s no question he’s a front-line catcher.”
Overall, BIS says that Castillo has saved the Cubs 18 runs with his defense when you incorporate all his contributions, including his ability to throw out would be base-stealers, which is also above average (26% caught stealing compared to MLB average 23%), and his ability to pick runners off first. He has done the latter 4 times, which is second in baseball to Chris Iannetta. His ability to control the running game has saved an additional 5 runs.
But a catchers' job goes beyond blocking pitches and controlling the running game. Castillo has become one of the best in the business in that aspect. But he has also made great strides on how to manage a game and handle pitchers.
"You've got to make the adjustments back there," Castillo said. "You've got to study them, like if you are in school. You've got to watch a lot of video. A lot of scouting reports, too. You've got to be on top of a lot of that to make your pitchers better."
But it's not just his intelligence and rapidly improving knowledge of his pitchers and opposing hitters. Castillo has an upbeat attitude and a way of calming down his pitchers. Said former teammate and now Iowa Cubs pitcher Michael Bowden,
"He's fun to throw to. I think one of his best assets is attitude. He's very positive, he's fun to be around. It's huge. He comes out there and smiles at you and just says something positive. You know, that goes a long way with pitchers. It helps calm you down and just gives you confidence to go and get your next pitch. Just having him behind the plate, you have a sense of comfort. "
Castillo fits perfectly with the Cubs plan to build defensive strength up the middle at possibly the most important defensive position on the field along with shortstop. He has become the anchor of the team at just age 26. He's just going to be entering his prime next year.
We should expect him to continue to improve on defense but where we may see even bigger strides is on offense. Castillo still takes a big cut at the plate but he also shows good plate discipline. After a slow start, he has walked in an outstanding 14.8% of his PAs in the second half and has walked in just over 8% of his plate appearances overall, which is slightly above MLB average. The OBP of .352 is above average for any hitter and well above average for catchers. It's yet another trait that also makes him a long term fit for this team.
If there is a missing component to Castillo's game so far, it's power. Despite the mighty swing, Castillo has hit just 4 HRs this year and is slugging .371 (.099 ISO). Yet we've seen Castillo put a charge into the ball, particularly to straight away CF, so we know the raw power is there. Castillo slugged .488 in 700+ AAA PAs (.221 ISO).
If you are not going to have a Buster Posey type catcher on your team, then the next best thing is to get yourself a young catcher who can catch and throw, call a game and get on base. And hopefully the rest of the offensive game continues to develop over time.
As for that certain Cardinals catcher we referred to earlier, he put up very similar offensive numbers at the same age offensively while also creating most of his early value as a defensive stalwart. He later developed better skills as a hitter and has become the all-around star and Cubs nuisance we know as Yadier Molina. I'm not necessarily saying Castillo is going to be that kind of player, but his skills behind the plate right now are arguably the best of any young catcher in the game. And while he doesn't have Molina's contact skills and plate coverage as a hitter, he can someday hit for similar power with similar OBP numbers.
Not coincidentally, Molina is the player Castillo looks up to,
“He’s one of the best in the business. Why not learn from him?” says Castillo, whose coaching this year has included game film of Molina.
“Everyone knows how good he is,” Castillo says. “I love competition. I love to see him do things, and it’s like I want to do better than him, that kind of stuff.”
This season may not have gone the way many have wanted as far as the MLB club is concerned, but perhaps the best thing to come out of this year is the Cubs finding their catcher of the future and a player who you can feel confident leading your pitching staff into the playoffs one day.