Before Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro signed a 7-year, $60 million extension in August of 2012, there were some people who opined that he should be traded. Somehow, Starlin had developed a reputation as lazy, undisciplined and uninterested in becoming a better all-around player. On a team that was on its way to 100 losses, some felt that the best way to rebuild would be to trade arguably the best player in the organization, despite the fact that Starlin was only 22 years of age at the time. And I thought former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry made some unintelligent decisions.
Luckily, the Cubs brass didn’t listen to the naysayers and decided that it would be best for all involved if Starlin were to stick around for a little while longer. It helped Starlin’s cause that he was at his offensive best in September/October, posting a triple slash of .311/.368/.875 in 31 games. It probably didn’t help that the Cubs went 10-21 in that same stretch, though. Since many considered 2012 a lost cause even before the season started, all was forgotten and it’s safe to say that most of us expected Starlin to produce closer to his September/October than what he has thus far in 2013.
Things haven’t been pretty for Starlin in 2013, and that’s not an overstatement. Defensively, he has had stellar and not-so-stellar moments, and this is to be expected of a very young shortstop who in some ways, is still learning not only the game, but his opposition. His 2013 fielding percentage (.966) is better than his career average (.960), but he is on pace to make fewer plays (270 through 162 games) than he has since his rookie campaign, when he played in just 123 games. There’s a solid chance he’ll match his 2012 number of Total Defensive Runs Saved (3) and at this rate, he will set a career-low in errors committed (22). Despite the fact that he hasn’t taken a step back in the field, he hasn’t really taken a remotely significant step forward, either.
After the first 23 games of 2012, Starlin was on pace to steal 70 bases at a 70% clip. I doubt anyone expected him to finish anywhere near that mark, but it was also a surprise that he finished 2012 with “only” 25 stolen bases. The presence of first baseman Anthony Rizzo from early July on most likely factored into Starlin only having 12 attempts (9 successful) in the second half, which I had no qualms with. Starlin finished 2012 25-38 in the stolen base category, a clear indicator that while he has the speed to steal bases, he needs to become more effective in that facet of his game. He’s 6-7 through 66 games this season, but his opportunities have been limited because he hasn’t been on base at nearly the same clip that he was to this point in 2012.
At the plate is where it has been pretty unsightly for Starlin in 2013. Granted, he won’t make dubious history like, say, Chicago White Sox first baseman/outfielder Adam Dunn did in 2011, but he has certainly regressed a bit at the plate this season. Ignore Starlin’s current triple slash of .237/.274/.609. Disregard the fact that among all Cubs regulars, his OPS is higher than only light-hitting second baseman Darwin Barney’s (.597). His OPS+ is a meager 65 and he is on pace to finish with 7 homers and 58 RBI, which would be his lowest totals since his rookie season. Castro has posted an OPS of .378 through 13 games in June, down from .608 in May and .715 the month before. Lefties have owned Starlin (.188/.258/.505 compared to lifetime .302/.356/.782) and he is on pace to finish 2013 with only 27 walks against 127 strikeouts over a full 162.
However, some of the surface numbers don’t bother me as much as knowing that his line drive and ground ball percentages are career lows at this point, while his fly ball percentage is higher than it has ever been. I worry that his declining plate discipline is more trend than blip. According to FanGraphs, Starlin is swinging at less pitches outside of the strike zone than he did in 2012, but the same goes for pitches inside of the strike zone. A player who has had very good plate coverage since his Major League debut, Castro is not making contact with as many pitches inside or outside of the strike zone as he has in years’ past. In addition, he’s not making as much contact when swinging as he has during his entire career, period. Starlin is seeing less pitches inside the strike zone, but is swinging and missing at a career-high rate. Oh. He’s also seeing first-pitch strikes in a career-low 57.2% of his plate appearances.
Now, some of Starlin’s paltry offensive numbers can certainly be attributed to opposing pitchers making adjustments. In the same way that Starlin will become a more sound defender and baserunner with increased knowledge of his opponents, the same can be said for his approach at the plate. He has enjoyed success early in his career, and it’s naive to think that others around the league would fail to make changes in how they deal with him, whether he’s at the plate, on the bases or in the field. I never figured that Castro would be Ty Cobb or Rogers Hornsby with the bat, or Ozzie Smith with the glove, but did feel that he could become one of the league’s elite hitters very soon into his career as well as a very good defender. That could still be the case, but he’s got a ways to go in 2013 to get back to his career averages at the plate. Defensively, he is improving, even if the corrections he has made aren’t easy to see on the field. Manager Dale Sveum dropped Starlin to seventh in the order a little more than a week ago, and he did not fare well (.080/.148/.308 in 7 games). He’s too good a hitter to be in the 6 or 7 spot, and maybe the move was meant to serve as a wake-up call and nothing more.
Mired in a 6-51 slump, Starlin Castro has got to be feeling the pressure. It’s sad that there are still people who believe he doesn’t want to succeed; as if he’s totally content with his current production in all areas of the game. In yesterday’s tilt against the New York Mets, he ripped a two-run double in the 8th inning of a 5-2 win, but finished 1-6 with 3 strikeouts. He’s 4-17 since being moved back to the top of the order and this is possibly a signal of his improvement at the dish.
Starlin hasn’t even been 23 years old for 3 months, and far too many are suggesting that he’ll never live up to certain, grand expectations. He’s still a “kid.” He will get better. He’s struggling at the moment, but I have full confidence that by the end of 2013, he will be closer to All-Star than afterthought.