Spring training has begun, which means that, by god, baseball season is almost here. As Chicago baseball fans, the truth is we really don’t have a whole lot to look forward to this year, as both the Cubs and White Sox should struggle to even finish .500. Still, it will be baseball, and we will be watching it. So instead of writing general team previews for the upcoming season, I’ll be writing a series of posts in which I make FEARLESS PREDICTIONS about what will happen during the upcoming season. Today we look at Starlin Castro.
A lot of last season was spent wondering what the hell was going on with Starlin Castro. Over his first three seasons as a Cub Castro had a slash line of .297/.336/.425 with an OPS+ of 105 and was worth 8.0 bWAR. Simply put, he was a bright spot amidst plenty of darkness, and actually provided Cubs fans with tangible hope.
Castro wasn’t just some prospect down on the farm who fans read scouting reports about, like they do now with Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and so many others. He was there, at Wrigley Field, playing well enough to make two All Star teams in his first three seasons. And all before his 23rd birthday.
Then 2013 came along and it all went to shit.
Castro’s line plummeted to .245/.284/.347 with an OPS+ of 72 and was worth -0.6 bWAR. He was below replacement level. Making matters worse, his problems at the plate certainly followed him to the field, where Castro made stupid mistake after stupid mistake. As typically happens when a young player struggles, fans began turning on him.
Suddenly all that was right with the franchise became a question of whether the Cubs should trade him. After all, he didn’t hustle to first base all the time, so how can we even be sure Castro wants it? Does he have the heart? The grit?
Well, yes, he does. It’s just he had some shitty luck and other outside factors to deal with as well.
It’s important to remember the weight the Cubs brass puts on things like OBP and general patience at the plate. Something that the team wanted to see Castro do more of, because for all his ability as a hitter through the start of his career, he was never the most patient hitter. Coming into 2013 Castro had drawn a walk in 5.2% of his plate appearances and saw an average of 3.58 pitchers per plate appearance. In 2013 Castro only walked 4.3% of the time, though he did see more pitches, checking in at a career high of 3.85 pitchers per PA.
But the average dropped significantly. You can deal with a guy who is impatient as a hitter when he’s hitting over .300, as Castro’s OBPs were never magnificent, but they were generally above league average the first three years due to nothing more than his ability to hit. You can’t deal with it when he’s hitting only .245.
Now, there’s a common theory that worrying about being more patient is what impacted Castro’s ability to hit, and it may be true. I really don’t know. Statistically the theory isn’t really supported, as Castro hit .292/.339/.442 in July — his best month of the season — while he was seeing 4.12 pitchers per PA. Though you can certainly make the case that it all messed with his head, and that could have led to less production at the dish.
Personally I believe there was another culprit entirely. Luck.
There is a lot of luck in the sport of baseball, and it doesn’t always even out over the course of a season, but it can over a career. Through his first three years Castro had a BABIP (batting average of balls put in play) of .334. In 2013 his BABIP dropped to .290 even though he was hitting line drives more often than he had at any other point in his career.
I have a hard time believing that’s a trend that will continue in 2014. Castro’s offensive production should improve based on nothing more than regression back to the mean as far as the balls he puts in play are concerned. Now, this isn’t absolute. Another problem with Castro was that he struck out more often last season. Castro struck out in 14% of his at bats his first three seasons and saw that number climb to 18.3% last year.
An increase that could be a result of the fact he took more pitches last season. While Castro had an increase of swinging strikes last season, he also looked at a lot more strikes. Which led to a lot more two-strike counts for Castro.
In 2012 Castro had 296 PA in which the pitcher got two strikes on him. In 2013 that number climbed to 352. That’s a 19% increase, and wouldn’t you know it, Castro struck out 29 more times in 2013 than 2012.
So maybe the key with Starlin Castro as a hitter is to just let Starlin be Starlin. Let him do the things that got him to Chicago, and got him to All Star games. He’s only going to be 24 this year, but odds are he is who he is. He’ll never be the perfect hitter for what the Cubs brass wants, but he’s still a good hitter. Simply letting him be himself and letting the math correct itself over the course of the season should end up with much better results for Castro.
And I think they will. I don’t know that he’ll hit .300, or lead the National League in hits again like he did in 2011, but he’ll be a much closer to that kind of production than he will be his 2013 performance.
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