Starlin Castro is in a funk. A deep one. A long one.
His overall numbers this year are the worst of his career – he’s now hitting just 272/.301/.414 for an OPS+ of just 92. Worse, his line is an ugly .243/.278/.393 going all the way back to May 11.
What’s going on with him? Should we be worried? Is this just a temporary blip? Well, it’s kind of both things.
Earlier this year, I noted a change in Castro’s approach at the plate (a more open stance), which seemed to be in service of pulling the ball more, and theoretically generating more power. It seems that the change has worked – Castro’s IsoP this year (.142) is the highest of his career – but has apparently left the rest of his game at the plate wanting. Is that the reason for his struggles?
Folks like to offer narratively pleasing, but ultimately unconvincing, explanations for his dip – the mid-season change in hitting coaches, for example – but the truth is that it’s probably as much an expected statistical variation as anything else.
You know where this is going: BABIP.
Over the course of their careers, hitters tend to put up the same batting average on their balls in play (BABIP), and outlier seasons in BABIP tend to regress back to the mean the next year. It’s become the vogue stat to point out hard luck years and too-much-luck years, but that’s largely because it’s predictive ability has been pretty strong.
So, let’s look at Castro’s BABIP story.
In 2010, his BABIP was .346, which is fairly high, but about what you’d expect for a player who hits so many line drives and who has decent speed. In 2011, then, as expected, his BABIP was .344. Two seasons isn’t quite enough for a baseline, but those figures square with his minor league BABIP, and give us a decent idea of the range you’d expect to see in 2012.
But his BABIP has actually been far, far lower – just .303. Your bad luck sirens should be blaring. Worse, his BABIP has dropped every month of the season, from .380 in April, to .333 in May, to .310 in June, to .238 in July, to .056 in August. That slide coincides perfectly with his increasing “slump.”
In other words, a huge part of the reason for Castro’s struggles is probably mere bad luck.
That all said, his dip in BABIP does nothing to assuage concerns that he remains too aggressive at the plate. To the contrary, an overly aggressive approach could lead to a drop in BABIP, particularly with someone who is as supremely good at making contact as is Castro – if you’re consistently making weak contact on pitches outside of the zone, you won’t hit as many hard liners, which are more likely to result in hits than anything else.
Just look at Castro’s O-swing percentage, which measures the rate at which he’s swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. In 2010 and 2011, Castro swung at about 32/33% of pitches outside of the zone, and made contact with them about 72/73% of the time. This year, Castro is swinging at 40(!) % of pitches outside of the zone, and making contact with them at the same rate. That huge leap isn’t good.
Further, his K-rate this year (16%) is the highest it’s been in his career (previously he was around 13.5%), and his BB-rate (3.9%) is the lowest it’s been in his career (previously he was around 5.3%). Those issues have nothing at all to do with the drop in BABIP.
Clearly, Castro’s slump is a mix of bad luck, and a bad approach. He’ll probably hit better over the next month and a half just positive regression, but he’s got work to do. And it sounds like his manager, Dale Sveum, agrees.
“Until he’s willing to make some adjustments, it’s going to be a constant battle to be a consistent hitter,” Sveum said. “Everything’s in between – the leg kick, all the hand movement and everything. There has to be some adjustments to center baseballs on a consistent basis.”
Hopefully Castro gets things on track – and takes the next step forward – in time for 2013.
It’s important to keep in mind as we have these discussions, though: at 22, there’s plenty of time for him to fulfill his promise, even if it doesn’t arrive according to our preferred schedules.