SCOTTSDALE — Rockies right-hander Ryan Castellani is what the Arizona Fall League is all about.
He is a prime Rockies prospect. The franchise’s second-round draft pick out of Brophy High School in Phoenix, he opted for pro ball instead of a scholarship to Arizona State, and three seasons into his pro career he was on the fast track. Baseball America even ranked him the No. 1 prospect in the High A California League in 2016.
Then came that bump in the road. He spent the last two years at Double-A Hartford, his trip to the big leagues detoured, not because of his ability, but because he lost direction. He has always had dominating stuff but with funk in his delivery.
He wanted to be more mainstream.
It didn’t work.
“I am an unconventional pitcher,” Castellani said. “I have a lower arm slot and a bit of a funky delivery, and, honestly, what happened was I was getting too conventional. I’d make an adjustment to get on top of the ball and try to create backspin. What I was doing was getting away from what made me consistent.”
In the past two months, however, the funk has returned.
“My arm slot is pretty even with my shoulder, even with my ear,” he said. “It’s a low three-quarters. The Rockies provided me information and data that literally showed where my arm slot was when I was throwing harder, when I was throwing more strikes.”
To help reinforce Castellani’s focus, the Rockies filled their slot on the Salt River staff with Dave Burba, a 15-year big-league veteran who has been a pitching coach in the Rockies system since 2011.
It took some time, but in the final weeks of the AFL, the Rockies saw the return of the Ryan Castellani they remembered from his earlier times.
Castellani had a no-decision in his final AFL start on Wednesday, but he did pitch the first five innings, allowing one run, in the 4-2 Salt River victory that clinched the AFL East crown for Salt River, which will face Peoria, which finished first in the West, in the AFL title game on Saturday afternoon.
What’s more, after struggling early in the fall, Castellani was right on track in three of his last four AFL starts, working five innings and allowing one run each time.
“Really, it was an easy fix because I’m just dropping down, feeling like I’m an athletic pitcher, and it really has made a difference,” Castellani said. “I felt like I was starting to get the feeling at the end (of the minor league) season, so I felt (the AFL) was a good opportunity to work on the consistency.”
Now, there was one outlier in those last four starts, but after working a combined 8 1/3 innings, allowing eight runs on eight hits and eight walks in his first three starts, he got back on course in the final four starts of the Fall.
The key? Castellani is back to being Castellani.
It may be unconventional, but it is what makes him successful.
“It’s funny,” said. “All of the problems, all the adjustments I was trying to make, it came down to, `You’re trying to be conventional and you are not,’” he said with a smile. “I would never teach my kid to throw like I throw. It’s almost sidearm, but for me, I throw more strikes, I’m more consistent. And I feel I am back to being that pitcher.”
There is an old-time baseball development philosophy about not making changes in players until they struggle.
“You know what they say, `You can’t hit if you wrap the bat,’” the late Hal Keller liked to say. “Well, somebody forgot to tell Julio Franco.”
In Castellani’s situation, it was a matter of a player not making changes in himself because he hadn’t struggled.
And there is the physical factor. Castellani’s mechanics may be abnormal, but they are the mechanics he has had ever since he can remember. His muscle structure has adapted, and when he tried to become conventional, the body said no.
“Exactly,” said Castellani. “All season (at Double-A Hartford) I knew what I needed to do,” he said. “The next day (after a start) I was sorer than I had ever been, my velocity was down, but now I have it back.
“I knew, `lower your arm slot,’ it is like there was a disconnect. It seems like a small thing, but it makes a huge effect. It is hard to fix in a bullpen session between starts, when you are in a season, trying to win games. Getting to the end of the season, I was able to slow things down.”
And the AFL reinforced that mentality. The way the league is set up, a pitcher gets one start a week, and there is a limited workload each game. That helped keep Castellani fresh for heavy duty bullpen sessions with Burba to get Castellani back on track.
“It’s not like you are taking a break, but you really focus and break things down,” he said. “It’s really nice to see the movement back. Now it’s like it used to be, get ahead in the count and let guys beat the ball into the ground like they used to.
“It’s a confidence thing. You build off it each game. There’s no forced manipulation.”
Castellani is back in his comfort zone, ready to resume his path to the big leagues.