From the Pages of Vine Line: Wel on his way

(AP Photo/Micah Tapman)Reds @ Cubs May 4,  2013

(AP Photo/Micah Tapman)

Welington Castillo was a force both offensively and defensively for the Cubs this season. Despite the club’s poor record, his emergence as a Gold Glove-caliber backstop provided some hope for the Northsiders. His stellar ability behind the plate is something he’s worked hard at over the years and he’s gotten some help along the way. The following appears in the October issue of Vine Line.

When Welington Castillo arrived in the big leagues, he knew he needed to work on his defense. Now, thanks to a few adjustments and a lot of hard work, he could legitimately be a Gold Glover.

The Cubs brass has always thought highly of catcher Welington Castillo. Early on, the 26-year-old prospect-turned-starter showed the organization he had the ability to hit and the raw tools to develop into a strong defensive backstop. But there was something holding him back from truly reaching his potential behind the plate.

Prior to the 2012 season, the Cubs hired staff assistant Mike Borzello, a former minor league player and longtime bullpen catcher for the Yankees and Dodgers, to work with the organization’s catchers. His two years were a big factor in Castillo’s career trajectory changing for the better (manager Dale Sveum and the entire coaching staff were relieved of their duties on Sept. 30. It’s currently unknown if Borzello will return with a new manager).

“He’s been a blessing for me,” Castillo said. “He’s been helping me a lot. We go out to work on little things that sometimes I don’t feel comfortable with. He’s been really good to me. He’s been around a lot of good players, he knows what he’s doing, and I’m blessed to be around him.”

During his time with the Dodgers, Borzello helped turn Russell Martin (now with the Pirates) into one of the best defensive catchers in the game. He also spent nearly a dozen years with the Yankees, where he helped improve Jorge Posada’s defense enough to keep him behind the plate and allow New York to utilize his plus offensive skills in a position often occupied by easy outs.

Borzello said he looked at video of Cubs catchers throughout the system when he was hired, but focused particularly on Castillo because of how highly he was viewed throughout the organization. The coach immediately noticed some inefficiency in Castillo’s defensive approach.

“He was having trouble receiving certain pitches, especially to his left,” said Borzello prior to the season’s conclusion. “It was something that kind of alarmed me, and I thought we needed to make some changes. I approached him on it and thought we could change his setup. He was open to it and immediately admitted to some of what he thought were the weaknesses in his game, and they were similar to what I thought I had seen already. With him being open to it, we changed his setup, and we changed the way he holds his glove.”

The modifications required Castillo to alter the placement of his feet, which allowed him to receive pitches to his left easier, frame pitches better (leading to umpires calling more strikes for his pitchers), and create a more efficient exchange of the ball from glove to hand when attempting to throw out would-be base stealers.

Both Borzello and Castillo admitted it was a pretty major overhaul of his catching mechanics, but it was necessary to help the player reach his potential. While the changes may not be obvious to the average fan, they were quite impactful for a guy attempting to make the transition from top prospect to everyday major league catcher.

“He was open to it, we made these changes, and he seemed very comfortable with it,” Borzello said. “It took a little while to where it was second nature, but we got there. It’s like changing your swing. You’re comfortable a certain way, but you’re not getting the results you want. You’re not possibly maximizing your abilities, and I thought we could get more out of him with this change. And it worked.”

It would be hard to argue that point. Now, according to most defensive metrics, Castillo has not only become a legitimate major league catcher, he might also be deserving of 2013 Gold Glove consideration. Using Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric, Castillo has had the best defensive season for a catcher in the major leagues. As of mid-September, his 17 DRS was two better than Pittsburgh’s Russell Martin and six better than his defensive idol, St. Louis’ Yadier Molina.

Borzello emphasized that all the credit for the improvement goes to Castillo, who not only was open to the adjustments, but also worked on implementing the changes every day over the past two Spring Trainings as well as during the regular season.

Undoubtedly, Castillo still has room to grow. Throughout the year, pitchers like former Cub Matt Garza and current staff leader Jeff Samardzija have gone out of their way to praise veteran catcher Dioner Navarro, who served as Castillo’s backup this year. But it’s not something Castillo takes as a negative. He knows as he gets more playing time, he’ll continue to build a rapport with each pitcher on his staff.

“I think you never stop learning from this game,” Castillo said. “Something that made me better is just playing time. It makes you know and improve what you can do. You learn from game calling, knowing the situation. It’s hard, but the more you get to know [the pitchers], the more confidence you develop in your relationship. Then the pitcher knows what you’re doing behind the plate. You build a relationship, and you really know who’s on the mound.”

Borzello echoed Castillo’s sentiments that playing time is the key to becoming a complete, all-around catcher. He watched Navarro go through some of the same growing pains as a young player.

“You can’t rush the process,” Borzello said. “When Navarro came up with the Yankees, I was there as well, and his evolution over time has happened by trial and error. You learn from your mistakes, and you learn by dealing with different pitchers, different pitching coaches and just watching the game. Playing the game, you become a little more seasoned. It’s something you don’t just show up and know how to do. You don’t know how to run a Major League Baseball game behind the plate until you’ve experienced a number of games.

“Every staff is different, and every pitcher has different things about them you need to know. You need to know which guys need a pat on the back and who needs to be pushed. You can yell at some, and you have to hug others. You’re not only a catcher; you’re a psychologist. You have to befriend these guys, and they need to know you’re in their corner.”

Learning the ins and outs of an entire staff—especially a staff that has experienced as much turnover as the Cubs’—takes time, but Castillo already appears to be figuring things out.

“Sometimes it’s tough when you’re catching this and that from so many different guys,” said Samardzija, who just completed his second year in the rotation. “I like to do this, and other guys like to do different things. It’s hard to keep all those things straight. I think Wely has done a great job of separating what each starter likes to do, and obviously the bullpen is a whole other beast in itself. You’ve got to be able to control both ends for nine innings. He’s been durable for us, he’s been consistent, and he obviously cuts the running game down. All those things give you confidence when he’s in the lineup.”

Borzello pointed out that really getting to know opponents well isn’t an easy thing to do in the minors. In the lower levels, catchers don’t have access to the video and statistical breakdowns that are readily available to every big league club.

“Here, we have a plan that we’re trying to execute against on each hitter, and it’s [Castillo’s] job to know what that plan is going in,” Borzello said. “He does his work, he studies, he watches video, he cares, he puts in a lot of time. That’s something he’s improved on over the last two seasons.”

Castillo admitted he didn’t know where he’d be right now without Borzello’s guidance. From the overhaul in his mechanics to just pointing out the subtleties of the game while they’re sitting together in the dugout, Borzello has proven to be a major catalyst in Castillo’s development.

“He’s my teacher,” Castillo said. “I listen to him a lot. I ask him a lot of questions. We sit together and watch the game, and he’ll ask me about different game situations.”

This student-teacher relationship has clearly paid dividends. Former manager Dale Sveum is keenly aware Castillo is taking the necessary steps to become the elite catcher Borzello believes he can someday become.

“The things that have improved with Wely are the game management, the preparation, the pitch calling, and knowing the weaknesses of the hitters as well as anybody,” Sveum said prior to his dismissal. “He’s done a great job of that. Obviously his throwing and blocking are as good as anybody in the league. There’s no question about that.”

It was only a year ago Sveum was spouting off a laundry list of items Castillo needed to improve in regards to his defense. The fact that Sveum rightfully believes Castillo is among baseball’s best with the glove just goes to show how much the young backstop has accomplished in such a short time.

On the offensive end, the Sveum said he’d like to see Castillo come to the plate with a more consistent idea of what he wants to do. While the catcher’s power has yet to develop—he was slugging only .365 through mid-September—he has shown a dramatic improvement in his ability to get on base.

Through his first 49 games of 2013, Castillo posted a disappointing .294 on-base percentage with a measly 3.2 percent walk rate. In the next 57 games, he had a robust .401 OBP, improving his season OBP to a very respectable .351 with a strong 8.2 percent walk rate.

Borzello said when he came to the Cubs, he was well aware Castillo could hit, but that wasn’t his concern. He wasn’t brought in to make Castillo a batting champ. For most young catchers, the primary focus is on defense. Castillo came to the big leagues raw on that side of the ball, but hard work has helped him rank among the game’s elite behind the plate—so much so that Borzello believes outside of Yadier Molina, the recognized gold standard among catchers, you would be hard-pressed to find a better defensive catcher than Castillo.

“You are a coach on the field,” Borzello said. “You’re the one who makes trips to the mound to handle a guy and settle him down. Tell him, ‘This is what we need to do right here. Execute this pitch, and we’ll be fine.’ Whatever it is, every situation is different, and Wely is learning that. I think he’s well on his way to getting to where we need him to be when this team turns it around and becomes a contender.”

One of the most popular topics among sportswriters and fans for the last few years has been discussing which current Cubs belong as part of the team’s core. It’s quickly becoming clear that Castillo is doing the necessary work to have his name mentioned in that group and to hold a major role with the successful Cubs teams of the future.

—Sahadev Sharma


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