Were any of us really all that worried that Starlin Castro wouldn’t return to form? Well, yes, I feel like we were all extremely worried. Frankly, if you weren’t worried about Starlin entering 2014, you were kidding yourself. What a dumb lede, Tommy.
Between trying to get him to change his approach and his swing, not to mention a frosty relationship with manager Dale Sveum, Starlin’s 2013 was an unmitigated disaster. His Yunieskian line of .245/.284/.347 was not only the worst season of his career, but it was also another worrying data point in the “Starlin is declining” trend. From 2011-2013, his wRC+ was 109, 100, and 72, respectively.
Almost any signs of life from Castro would have been viewed as reason to hope for the future. Through that lens, Starlin’s 2014 has to be counted as a nearly-unmitigated success. He didn’t just improve over last season, he set career-bests in almost every facet of his game.
Castro’s .291 batting average was backed up by his career-best line-drive percentage (22.3%). His career-best 6.2 BB% was built on the back of an honest-to-goodness improvement in plate discipline – he swung at pitches outside the zone at the lowest rate of his career while maintaining an in-the-zone swing rate right around his career average of 65.5%. His 14 home runs (a career-best pace) are maybe a touch fluky based on his elevated HR/FB%, but he also hit the highest percentage of balls off the ground in his career. That leads to more home runs even if the rate is unsustainable.
Starlin achieved such a strong season, in my opinion, thanks to a major change in his approach at the plate – he’s gone from an opposite-field hitter to one who looks to pull the ball with authority.
I wrote about this earlier in the year, and was wondering if what we were seeing was a legitimate change from Starlin or a small-sample-size aberration. While I don’t think we can quite rule that out yet, over a full season Starlin has quite clearly been looking to pull the ball:
It goes without saying that players hit the ball with much more authority to their pull side, and that’s exactly what Starlin did this season. He had a 200 wRC+ to his pull side, 138 up the middle, and 74 to the opposite field. His HR/FB% to left was an ungodly 50%, so expect that to regress next season, but probably not by too much – from 2011 to present, his HR/FB% to his pull side has been 19%, 30%, 23% and 50% last season.
What I don’t expect to regress is the percentage of pitches he pulls and hits up the middle. This season, he significantly changed the types of pitches he was swinging at. The chart below shows the change in his swing tendencies over his previous four seasons (thanks to BrooksBaseball.net for the data used in this table).
Castro spent this season keying on inside and thigh-high pitches that he could drive to left and center, and he did an excellent job of executing that strategy.
Even in the less-tangible elements of Starlin’s game, you could sense a renewed dedication and focus. The only mental error I can think of came on a double he turned into a single in Cincinnati only a week after he lost four of his best friends in a car accident.
In the field, Starlin made the fewest errors of his career (15 in 133 games played) and advanced metrics pegged him as the same slightly-below-average shortstop he’s always been.
In fact, the only thing I can think of that disappointed me with Castro this season was his strikeout rate. It stayed a bit too high for someone providing middling power, and his career-worst swinging strike rate does worry me a bit going forward.
In the end, though, Starlin did nearly everything we could have asked of him this season and then some. I’m giving him an “A” for his performance, and I can’t wait to see him back on the field next season.