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).