2012 Player Profile: Starlin Castro
Castro has proved himself as the Cubs’ top player and will be in Chicago through the end of the decade. (Photo by Stephen Green)
2012 Positions Played: SS (100%)
2012 Batting (AVG/OBP/SLG): .283/.323/.430 in 691 PA
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 3.3
2013 Contract Status: Signed (through 2019, plus club option)
When Theo Epstein joined the Cubs, he said the organization would focus on acquiring impact talent. He did, however, know he had one out of the box in shortstop Starlin Castro.
In August, the Cubs locked up Castro through the end of the decade, buying up three years of his free-agency eligibility (with the option to snag a fourth, in 2020). The idea behind an extension like this is simple: The player gains security from the risks of injury and underperformance, while the team in turn gets cost certainty and the chance to hold a true bargain contract.
Castro’s extension has an additional feature, however—a relatively flat salary structure. The reported annual salaries range from $5 million in the first year to $11 million in the last. The takeaway is that Castro’s contract shouldn’t ever become a burden to the team. It’s common for general managers to backload contracts so that they can maximize their payroll flexibility in the present while, presumably, planning for the future. Instead, Epstein and Jed Hoyer have sent a real signal here of their long-term thinking and intentions to build a consistent winner.
Since Castro’s hit tool already is so strong—somewhere around plus-plus, or a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale—his approach becomes the key to unlocking another level in his game. And there’s reason to believe there was real progress made in that area under manager Dale Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson.
The 22-year-old’s walk rate by month tells a visible story of improvement. Entering 2012, Castro’s career standard was just over 5 percent, and he was trailing that below-average figure pretty well over the season’s first three months. But starting in July, he made tangible strides in his plate discipline that brought him closer to the NL non-pitcher average of 8 percent walks. His strikeout rate showed an opposite trend overall, peaking at 18 percent in June before dropping to 14, 16 and finally 9 in the last three months.
Let’s take a closer look with PITCHf/x location data, as presented by BrooksBaseball.net and Baseball Prospectus (player card), to see if we can identify a difference in Castro’s first- and second-half approaches.
In the first half of the season, Castro was susceptible to swinging at any pitches middle-in to inside, including those off the plate or above/below the zone. In the second half, he cut his chase percentage in these areas significantly, to the tune of about 13 percentage points. He correspondingly let loose on more pitches in the zone, and he did more damage on pitches low and in.
(Note: The outside edges here are to scale—so they include pitches within about seven inches of the strike zone, not further.)
Another part of Castro’s game that appeared to improve this season was his defense, where he showed above-average range and more consistent throwing. He got to balls at a higher rate than before, especially relative to the league. A lot of that credit goes to Sveum, bench coach Jamie Quirk and the front-office analysts whose intel better positioned Cubs fielders than in the past. But their indirect effect on Castro’s improved throwing was also apparent. In 2012, Castro made a throwing error on 1.7 percent of his chances (assists plus throwing errors). That was half the rate from 2011.
Now, Castro didn’t universally show improvement this year, as his .283 batting average was the lowest of his career—and it brought his on-base percentage down with it. But there appears to be meaningful under-the-hood development. It’s a positive trend that the Cubs organization is betting continues over the next several seasons.