As an admitted and unrepentant Starlin Castro apologist, I am rarely at a loss for opportunities to either defend or bolster my stance. Whether it’s his play or his playtime, the Cubs shortstop is a polarizing figure who has long served as a lightning rod for varied opinions.
Now, with the drama of two shooting incidents behind him, discussion on Castro will shift mercifully to his on-field performance. And you would think everyone would agree on the merits of a 24-year-old 3-time All-Star with a career slash line of .284/.325/.410 and still-developing power potential.
But that’s just not the case. Many will point to Castro’s relatively pedestrian .735 OPS and 99 OPS+, not to mention his 98 wRC+ and say that he’s just an average hitter. Au contrair, mon frère, others will say; those stats include an abysmal 2013 in which he hit .245/.284/.347 and struck out 129.
Had he not been forced to toil laboriously under the cruel tutelage of Dale Sveum and the strict edict of increased plate discipline, those career numbers would look even better. So which is it? Was 2013 the exception or the rule?
Even the pros are divided on this topic, as evidenced by CBSsports.com’s 2015 fantasy outlooks. In his breakdown of the Cubs, data analyst Al Melchior actually labels Castro a potential bust.
Castro bounced back from an awful 2013 season to bat .292 with 14 home runs and 65 RBI last year. He’ll be just 25 this season, so you can safely leave worries of decline behind, right? Not so fast there, Tex. It might appear Castro is back for good, since he hadn’t hit lower than .283 in any of his first three seasons, but back then he was striking out less often. Castro didn’t remedy that last year, and he also became an extreme pull hitter and notched infield hits at a lower rate. That doesn’t bode well for a repeat of Castro’s .273 batting average on grounders. He can’t be counted on for steals anymore, so all he may provide is 10 to 15 home runs and a .270ish batting average with diminished run production. That’s probably not enough to cut it as a top 12 shortstop, so he’s not a safe pick in standard mixed leagues, unless you’re targeting him for the MI slot in a Roto league.
One of the main knocks Melchior notes on Castro in the increased pull rate, but our Tommy Cook wrote several months ago about the merits of that same change in approach. Sure, there are some inherent pitfalls in a hitter becoming too pull-happy, but it certainly appeared that Castro’s improved discipline kept that in check.
And when he broke down Castro’s season in a subsequent post, Cook had this to say:
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.
Then again, Cook’s Twitter bio outs him as a fellow Starlin Castro apologist, so you might take both his assessment (and my vehement approval of it) with a grain of salt. Still, I’m more inclined to go with him over a declaration that Castro can’t “cut it as a top 12 shortstop: and that he’s “not a safe pick.”
If only I could find some comprehensive data to support my, well, support of the Cubs SS. Enter the inimitable Mauricio Rubio, he of Baseball Prospectus fame. A consummate master of the infographic, Rubio magicked up a beautiful compilation of 5×5 graphs detailing offensive output for MLB shortstops.
Of the 25 men shown, only 6 fell into the above average category. Would you care to guess who one of them was? Okay, Troy Tulowitzki. But how about another one? Yes, that’s Starlin Castro producing a bright yellow pentagon that hovers above 19 others.
But what about his defense? Defense, schmefense, I’m just paying attention to how the guy handles the bat. Okay, that’s a bit naive and irresponsible; after all, Castro mans a position that’s as important as any when it comes to team success. And let’s face it, Castro is no Garry Templeton. No, he’s actually much better.
The jury is still out on whether or not Castro can eventually limit his mental gaffes and simply make all of the routine plays. He has the ability to sparkle on the diamond, but consistent performance is something that remains to be seen. And with the Cubs pegged as their division’s worst defensive team, they don’t have much leeway for weaknesses in the field.
Castro’s got a long way to go before he starts converting the masses of detractors, but a repeat of last season — along with a prolonged absence of off-field incidents — will cover quite a bit of ground. Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy outrageous Mets trade proposals and this fantastic meme.