Sitting up late night Saturday while the wife pulls an all night shift at work left me restless and sleepless. So what better to do than watch Moneyball and think Cubbies. That led me to ponder the revolving question of the anomaly that has been Starlin Castro.
To start his career Castro was a see-ball/hit-ball, aggressive swinger who hit line drives and used his baseball natural ability to succeed. He quickly put up a 200 hit season and was nationally groomed as the next great offensive shortstop in the game who had developing power. It seemed that his glove was his biggest question and was the only factor that would hold him back from a perennial all-star type career. He was the darling of Chicago at a time where winning was/is absent and we the fans hoped on a dream of a team built around the budding star.
Oh how quickly the tide can change and so have opinions on the still yet to turn 24 shortstop. He now is seen as a bust candidate who needs to quickly turn things around or he will be dealt in favor of an up and coming yet to see AAA SS with a bigger bat and bigger questions with the glove.
Let me lay out some stats for you. While Castro's Rdrs/year went down this past year he continued a solid trend of improved fielding percentage up to .967 committing only 22 errors. I say only because it is a career low and and 5 fewer than the previous year. If he continues this trend he will be at .970 or better next year and would put him in the top half of SS in baseball. If he shows a bigger jump in improvement he may be seen as good defensive shortstop by this time next year. Why say this? What was said he needed to improve on he has been steadily improving on since coming into the league. That speaks positively to his work ethic and continued development.
But what happened to that bat? The very thing that rushed Castro to the bigs as a 20 year old now seems to be the biggest question. We all know of the well documented attempt to have Castro see more pitches in an effort to get into better counts so that he would have more opportunities to drive good pitches. We also all now how miserably that little experiment failed over the last year and a half. So what do we have with the 23 year old shortstop?
Castro's numbers via baseball prospectus show consistently that he is a .350-.400 hitter with the ball in the middle of the zone, regardless of inside/outside. He crushes the ball low and inside and middle inside as well. His SLG% also plummets when the ball is outside. So despite his willingness to go the other way, his power doesn't play that way at all. When the ball gets up in the zone he drops off, and when the ball is low and outside he falls off the table. In his first few seasons Castro saw significantly more pitches in his sweet zones, which is in part to other teams doing their homework and keeping the ball up or low and away, but also is do to the experiment stats might suggest. Baseball prospectus also suggests pitchers will throw middle of the zone more frequently earlier in the count in order to get ahead.
So what we saw in 2013 is a suggested anomaly as well as a perfect storm against Castro. A guy who hammers middle of the zone pitches was taught to let pitches go early in the count, while simultaneously pitchers were still trying to get ahead and were throwing middle of the zone early in counts. This isn't to hammer on the FO's attempt to develop patience and have Castro see more pitches. That is a good theory, but I propose another moving forward. Tell Castro, regardless of the count, with less than 2 strikes look middle of the zone only. He is good enough to react inside/outside and he may never be a 20/25 home run guy, but I would bet the family farm on him being a .300 hitter. He probably will never be a .400OBP guy either, but if he hits the ball middle in he will be better for it.
So if Castro and the Cubs throw away the failed experiment and teach Castro to look for specific pitches in specific counts what you may well see in 2014 and beyond will be something of the .300+ hitting shortstop with gap to gap power and plus defense..oh and if he does start to punish more of the balls he already hits well he just might end up being a perennial 20/40/80 hr/2b/rbi guy. One last thing, After June 12th (nominal date choice) Castro exploded compared to before that date, so maybe the experiment wasn't lost, but the beginning was so bad that the entire season's stat line suffered. After that date on pitches middle of the zone middle or middle in he slugged over .650...not bad for a busted 23-year-old has been.
Moral of the story, let 2014 be a year to remember as a defining point in what could be an incredible career for the young Cub shortstop.