Yesterday, I couldn’t help but think that, when Starlin Castro rolled over an outside pitch and pulled a dribbler weakly to shortstop, I’d seen him do that a lot this year.
That kind of out is usually the product of a batter not closing off his body to a pitch on the outer half, instead remaining open, reaching with the hands, and trying to pull the ball. In variably, he can’t get there with authority (it’s all wrists at that point), his wrists roll over, and it’s a weak ground ball. If, on the other hand, the batter lunges toward the outer half, closes his body off, and meets the ball more in the middle of his swing, he’s more likely to line the ball with authority – but it’ll be toward right field, rather than left. You sacrifice power in this approach, but you hit more line drives on those outside pitches.
So, other than anecdotes like what I saw yesterday, how can we determine whether Castro is making a conscious effort to try and pull the ball more this year? Well, I can think of two ways. First, let’s just look at his plate approach. Compare how he looked at this time in April 2011 (as the pitcher delivers):
With how he looks now:
Two things jump out at me about his lower half (BN’er Chris points out the change in hand position, which is notable, but harder to judge given the possible incremental difference in the timing of the pitchers). First, Castro’s stance is much more open now than it was early in the year in 2011 (it’s fair to note that it became more and more open as the year went on). This year, he actually looks quite a bit like Derrek Lee looked in his days with the Cubs. Castro’s left foot is so far open that almost touches the far edge of the batter’s box. This kind of open stance allows a batter to stay open fractionally longer, so that if he gets a pitch on the inner half, he doesn’t have to work quite as hard to turn on it, and connect with the barrel of the bat on pitches closer to where his body is rotating. This, theoretically, allows him to hit for more power.
The second thing that jumps out at me in the picture is Castro’s bent right knee. I’m not a professional swing analyst, so I welcome input, but, to me, that looks like a guy who has redistributed his weight slightly to his back leg. Once again, more weight on the back leg, which shifts forward as the swing is delivered, will generate more power.
So, from a quick look at Castro’s plate approach, he has the look of a guy who’s trying to hit for more power. He’s now the number three batter, charged with driving in runs, so you can understand the tweak. But, is it possible, in an effort to generate that power, Castro is making a conscious effort to pull the ball more? That is to say, it’s one thing to focus on generating more power, and a separate – but related – thing to focus on pulling the ball more. We can see that Castro is probably trying to generate more power with his stance and approach, but is he also actively pulling the ball more?
It’s early in the year, and there isn’t much data yet. But, so far, the answer appears to be yes.
According to FanGraphs, I count 37 hits to right field for Castro last year. He had a total of 207 hits in 2011, so about 17.9% of his hits went to right field.
This year, I count just two hits to right field for Castro, compared to 28 total hits (7.1%). Again, it’s early in the year, and that’s a small sample, but it’s a pretty marked shift down. Further, Castro’s spray chart this year certainly has the look of a guy who isn’t frequently going to right field with authority:
Only seven of 40ish balls he’s hit at Wrigley Field this year went to right field (three to five are on the CF/RF border). I see a lot of groundouts to the left side, and a lot of liners up the middle. I like the latter, but the former tends to add weight to my theory that he’s rolling over a lot of outside stuff.
So, based on the little data we yet have, combined with a review of his approach this year, I’d say it’s safe to conclude that Castro is trying to generate more power this year, in part by actively looking to pull the ball more.
Now, none of this is necessarily a criticism of Castro’s approach (indeed, when he *has* gone to right field this year, he’s added quite a few outs on fly balls, so maybe he’s doing the right thing). Most hitters, as they mature and their power develops, start to pull the ball more. Castro’s numbers on the year aren’t bad, so it’s not as though he’s killing himself with this approach. Then again, he has yet to hit a homer (and his IsoP is actually lower than it was last year – i.e., he’s hitting for less power overall this year so far), and I can’t help but wonder how many of those weak dribblers to short actually could have been sharp line drives to the right side of the field.
Ultimately, I have no beef with Castro’s change in approach if it yields newfound power. We haven’t seen it yet, but I suspect it’s coming. And, until then, if he wants to start driving some of that outside stuff to right field, I’d be find with that, too. Is he pulling the ball “too much”? He’s pulling the ball “a lot,” but evaluative terms like “too much” will probably have to wait for at least a full year’s worth of data.