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Potentially apropos given the discussion in this morning’s Bullets about the Cubs’ future at hitting coach, friend of the program Sahadev Sharma recently wrote about the team’s developing approach at the plate. The article, which is unsurprisingly a good read, focuses on a number of players and the pitches they see at the dish.

Perhaps the most interest bit, however, touches on Starlin Castro’s evolving approach, declining batting average, and future ability. It includes a few interesting quotes from interim hitting coach James Rowson, who took over for Rudy Jaramillo midseason, about the progression of Castro’s season. From ESPNChicago:

“He’s focusing on (being more patient),” Rowson said. “We’ve talked about it and to his credit he’s really come out and worked hard on his pitch selection. He really has made a great effort to get better pitches and you see it. You’re starting to see him work pitch counts, there’s been some occasion where he’s gone from 0-2 to drawing a walk, which is outstanding for him. It’s really tough for a player to do that midseason, it shows what kind of athlete Starlin is and what type of hitter he can be.”

Castro, who has consistently been a .300 hitter early on in his career, has seen his batting average plummet to .275, a side effect of adjusting his approach midseason. However, it’s Rowson’s contention that this is merely a bump in the road for Castro.

“I expect this guy to be the hitter that he’s always been, we’re just adding a little to his arsenal,” Rowson said. “Obviously there’s growing pains with anything you do for the first time. But he’s taking it head on, he’s working really hard at it. But I do feel like he’s going to be an elite hitter at the major league level for the future.”

We’ve discussed Castro’s offensive issues here a few times before, most recently with a look at whether his decreasing production is the product of a diminished approach, or merely the product of luck. There, we learned a about number of things, including Castro’s depressed BABIP, his swings outside of the zone, his increased K rate and his decreased BB rate. Taken together, the numbers suggested that a blend of approach issues and bad luck were to blame for Castro’s down season.

Rowson’s quotes suggest that Castro’s biggest visible problem – a rapidly declining batting average – could actually be the product of a learning process at the plate. If Rowson and the Cubs are drastically trying to change Castro’s approach (by which I mean simply “see more pitches, try to drive ones in a very limited zone, be more comfortable hitting with two strikes”), then a decline in production would be both understandable and expected.

It’s a very small sample size, but the early returns on this work with Rowson are positive. Since writing that previous article on Castro, which noted that his out-of-zone swing percentage (the percentage of time he’s swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone) was a whopping 40%, he has dropped that number to 38%. That’s a pretty big drop consider it’s less than a month of work at the end of the season, when your stats are already built upon a huge number of at bats. The eye test confirms it: doesn’t it seem to you that, in the last month, Castro has been taking more pitches outside of the zone? It has seemed that way to me, at least.

Further, although his overall line in August wasn’t any better than his season line, Castro’s line drive percentage in August (23.9%) was the highest it’s been in any month this year since April. Moreover, his BB/K ratio has improved every month since May, from an anemic 0.10 to a healthy 0.58 in August. If he had a 0.58 BB/K ratio all year, he would have the 33rd best mark in all of baseball. Considering the kind of hitter Castro has been, that’s an incredible stat. And it could suggest some good things are coming in the near future.

Hopefully Castro’s improved August approach isn’t just a small sample size fluke, and is indeed the reflection of his work with Rowson (and, presumably, Sveum).

  • Mysterious4th

    I think the FO should give rowson a 2yr deal as the hitting coach. He’s done a good job with not all that much to work with aside from a few players. Id like to see what he does with them over the winter and the young guys in spring training that won’t make the team out of the gate next year.

  • ptbnl

    This is another advantage of locking up your young players. Since Castro knows he is getting paid he can try new things and not worry about putting up good stats to get his arbitration numbers up. I wonder how many young players would be more coachable if they didn’t know in the back of their mind that having their average drop below 300 could cost them millions.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Excellent point.

      • Cedlandrum

        hmm never really thought of that, but it is a very good point.

  • MoneyBoy

    Fabulous article !!! We can only hope that the entire organization is emphasizing this approach at all levels!!

    ptbnl … Really good point and one I wouldn’t have thought about!

  • Picklenose

    If we do keep Rowson, he should have some input on who the minor league batting instructors are, and spend some time training them. Then our hitters will get taught a similar approach all the way up the line.
    I worked as an assistant volleyball coach in a small high school. The head coach and I worked really well together and produced teams that won the division almost every year. However, the JV coach taught different technique and we had to retrain the JV players in some very basic fundamentals every season and watch them like hawks to make sure they didn’t revert to old, bad habits. Almost every year our team struggled early, but got strong at the end of the season. I don’t think the Cubs can afford that kind of disconnect in the coaching staff.

  • Flashfire

    I agree that he’s made huge strides — he just seems poised to break out in a big way next season. It does raise an interesting question with Rowson, though.

    While Castro has improved markedly, Anthony Rizzo has regressed in August almost as much. Jackson is still a bit of a question mark. And, really, who else on the Cubs roster do you really want to hold the hitting coach responsible for. Possibly Castillo, which helps Rowson.

    So, the question becomes: is Rowson the guy who developed Castro and Rizzo’s struggles are his own, or is Rowson the guy who couldn’t community effectively with Rizzo while Castro is such a great athlete people simply had to suggest a new approach to him, and he just did it. Answering that question is why Theo makes the big bucks.

    • Drew7

      “So, the question becomes: is Rowson the guy who developed Castro and Rizzo’s struggles are his own, or is Rowson the guy who couldn’t community effectively with Rizzo”

      I think it’s both. Or neither, depending on how you want to say it. While it makes for a great debate, I believe the influence a hitting coach at this level has on these guys is very minimal.

    • Frank

      I agree Drew7–it could be both, or neither; but I think also that Rizzo’s struggles are at least partly the result of major league pitchers getting more looks at him and adjusting to his strengths and weaknesses. How he adapts to their change in approach, presumably with Rowson’s help, will tell us more.

      • Flashfire

        That was actually kind of where I was coming from — are the struggles because Rowson has been unable to help Rizzo adapt for whatever reason. The hard part about this for everyone is that the Cubs get one more month to decide. This game is a bitch, that way.

        • hansman1982

          Another question to ask would be what did Rowson have to do with Rizzo’s changed batting stance? If Rowson tought Rizzo that stance and coached him on how to adapt to it then he gets the credit. Rizzo’s current struggles have more to do with the league readjusting to his new swing and exploiting any holes in it than any hitting instruction. Then again, looking at his season line, if this is what he can put up in his “Redshirt Freshman” season….RIZZOMG!!!

          It will be interesting to see how Rizzo readjusts and finishes the season.

          • baldtaxguy

            Interesting, who did teach/recommend Rizzo that stance?

          • Flashfire

            Good point on his stance. I hadn’t considered it, but that is quite valid.

            I would disagree slightly with them exploiting holes in his swing — they’re exploiting his inability to hit off-speed pitches. He spent July establishing that the could hit any fastball thrown to him. Then, in August, the league decided: okay, what happens if we throw him anything but a fastball. The results — to this point — are not good.

          • http://bleachernation loyal100more

            the rizz is gonna be a BEAST!

  • Andrewmoore4isu

    Maybe someone should teach starlin how to steal a base…?

  • cb4

    I hope he spends the offseason working on his pitch and girl selection.

    • Hee Seop Chode

      that made me laugh.

  • SirCub

    I wonder if his elevated O-Swing% could have to do with added patience, as in, he’s taking more pitches, getting into more two-strike counts, and “forced” to expand his strike zone. If he has a higher O-Swing% in 2-strike counts (as many hitters do), then an increase in patience/selectivity might actually lead to more two-strike counts, and thus a higher O-Swing%. To confirm that, you’d need to look at his plate discipline numbers by count, which I don’t know if that’s available.

    I feel like I have noticed this anectdotally with Starlin though, where he goes up there looking like he’s really trying to be selective, takes a couple pitcher’s strikes that he would normally put in play, then chases a breaking ball out of the zone with two strikes. It’s not a good approach, but it’s actually a step in the right direction.

  • baldtaxguy

    Great article, I enjoyed the insight, thanks for sharing it.

  • scorardpaul

    I could be wrong, but didn’t this guy help Rizzo in AAA.

  • Barbara Berg

    Should have kept Jaramillo.

    • Flashfire

      I think that ship had pretty much sailed.

    • Jake

      Yes, I am not sure what happened there(Inside word was he pissed somebody off. Told Theo to fuck himself. Not sure if that’s how it went down, but there were words flying)

  • Fastball

    My observation has been that our hitters up and down the line up are so focused on taking pitches that they have lost their aggressiveness. By that I mean they look like they are on their heels. When opposing pitchers know the opposing team is going to look at pitches because that’s what their coaches philosophy is they are going to get ahead in counts often. When your a pitcher and you know you can get ahead in the count because they aren’t going to swing it’s an incredible advantage. I have seen it time and again where these guys watch very hittable pitches and then start swinging behind in the count at pitchers pitches or they have gotten so passive they take called third strikes. The K rate with this new pitching coach is extremely high in my opinion. If what they are doing is trying to take the approach of making players take pitches until they get used to it. Well that’s one way to do it until it becomes habit. You also risk taking away a players natural ability that got him fairly far in professional baseball. Everyone on the Cub roster needs to drastically improve. At one point this year we had opposing starting pitchers getting though innings with less than 10 pitches quite regularly. A Happy Medium needs to be found and then we will begin to see progress.

  • DocPeterWimsey

    Castro, who has consistently been a .300 hitter early on in his career, has seen his batting average plummet to .275, a side effect of adjusting his approach midseason.

    And to whip the dead horse a bit more, this conclusion is not only logically fallacious, but it’s also based on a false premise and a misunderstanding of what “consistent” means. Here are Castro’s month by month BAs
    0.215 2010/9
    0.227 2010/6
    0.235 2012/7
    0.250 2011/7
    0.252 2012/8
    0.264 2012/6
    0.287 2011/5
    0.304 2012/5
    0.305 2011/6
    0.310 2010/5
    0.323 2011/8
    0.324 2011/9
    0.333 2012/4
    0.336 2010/8
    0.348 2011/4
    0.361 2010/7

    As you can see, there is substantial variation. And as most of you might guess, it’s entirely within the range that you’d expect from someone who is basically has a 30% chance of getting a hit in every AB against league average pitching when there is variation in the quality of competition from one month to the next. Remember, the difference between batting 0.220 and 0.300 in a month is 8 or 9 hits, or one hit every three games or so. It looks like a lot when we write “0.220” and “0.300”: but the actual difference really is not that big.

  • die hard

    Project out 2 years…will Castro become a 25hr/15SB/.300BA/175 hits player for the next 7 yrs thereafter? Not too much to expect given salary Anything less would be disappointing

    • bbmoney

      That’s the expectation for a SS making an average of $8.6M a year? Anything less than that given the salary is disappointing? That’s an intense offensive expecation for a SS making 8.6M a year.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think Starlin could certainly put up those numbers. I’m just not sure how the salary would make anything less than that disappointing. Those are Tulo’esk numbers from a SS, which is worth a lot more than 8.6M if you’re playing average or better defense (which he is this year).

  • 5412

    Hi,

    Great analysis, thanks.

    5412

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