From the Pages of Vine Line: Starlin Castro is back on track

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

For anyone doubting whether Starlin Castro could still hit, for anyone fearing an “inevitable” career regression, for anyone thinking he didn’t have the talent or drive to justify his seven-year, $60 million contract, the last day of April served notice that those fears might be a bit premature.

On a cloudy, 70-degree night at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, the Cubs shortstop went 3-for-4 with two doubles, a walk, a run and an RBI, raising his season slash line to .308/.339/.471 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with four home runs and a then-team-leading 14 RBI.

But perhaps the most important thing about that April 30 game—and possibly the whole first month of the Cubs’ season—was simply that Starlin Castro looked like Starlin Castro again. He was confident, aggressive and ready to swing the bat. When he saw a pitch he thought he could handle, he attacked it.

“I feel great this year,” Castro said. “I feel like I trust myself. I got a lot of positive things I’m doing. Last year, I didn’t have confidence in myself. That’s why I struggled for the whole year. I’m working a lot to just try to get those bad things and bad habits out of my mind and just be ready for this year.”

After two All-Star campaigns in 2011 and 2012, in which Castro compiled 390 hits and became the youngest-ever NL hits leader (207 hits in 2011), the Dominican native’s ascendant career hit a speed bump in 2013. Last year, he slipped to a .245/.284/.347 line, often looking indecisive at the plate, bereft of the trademark see-the-ball-hit-the-ball confidence that marked his first few years. That regression, coupled with some mental lapses in the field and on the basepaths, placed his every move under the microscope. Perhaps no player since Carlos Zambrano has been quite as scrutinized, dissected and parsed as the Cubs’ talented shortstop.

Opinions on Castro’s potential vary wildly, but it’s hard to deny he was one of the better natural hitters in the league for the first few years of his career. And the beginning of the 2014 season has provided significant hope that Castro hasn’t just returned to form, but might actually be better than before. It’s easy to forget that with four seasons under his belt, Castro is still just 24.

“Sometimes we assume that once a player has been in the big leagues for X amount of years, he’s finished completing his development,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “I came up to the big leagues when I was 24 or 25, and I still didn’t know how to play the game. He got here when he was 20, and we assume he knows exactly everything he’s doing. I think he’s still learning.”

DOWN YEAR
Much of the conversation on the North Side this offseason centered around whether “core” players like Castro and Anthony Rizzo could bounce back after struggling in 2013. Though the year is still young, Castro’s early numbers at the plate and in the field, coupled with his improved confidence, are definitely cause for optimism.

“I know he had a really tough year last year, but I have known him from the minor leagues,” said Cubs catcher Welington Castillo. “I’ve been playing with him my whole career. I think it was good in one aspect that it happened to him last year because that will make him stronger. And whenever it happens again, he won’t fall like last year. He’s an All-Star. He’s a really good player. That’s why he’s playing like he is now. He’s playing with confidence. He’s enjoying what he’s doing.”

So what happened in 2013? Despite any shortcomings Castro may have had early in his career, he could always match bat to ball. But comparing his 2013 season to the previous year (which already was not his best), he had 20 fewer hits, 34 fewer RBI, and lost 38 points off his batting average and 39 off his on-base percentage, all while striking out 29 more times.

“It’s hard, it’s unbelievable,” Castro said of his 2013 season. “I don’t even sleep good. It’s really tough. I don’t even [want to] talk about it anymore. I don’t want to put something in my head—a bad habit like that—I just want to be good for this year.”

There are a number of theories to explain the down season—one of the most popular of which is that Castro simply didn’t mesh well with former manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff, who wanted the player to hit for more power and to focus on seeing more pitches per at-bat.

Though the idea sounded good in theory, it seemed to take Castro out of his game. When he’s going well, he swings—and typically swings hard—at anything he can get to, regardless of pitch type, and has a propensity for making hard contact. By the eye test last year, Castro looked hesitant, and the numbers bear that out. His isolated power (ISO), a measure of a hitter’s raw power, was down 34 points from his career average, his line drive rate was down by a percentage point, and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was down 33 points. In other words, Castro was consistently making weaker contact.

“There’s definitely got to be an agreement with the player [about being more patient],” said Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller. “I think that has to be a two-way street. It’s difficult to ask someone if they’re not fully committed into that. I don’t know what happened last year. I don’t know really what was asked or what was going on. I don’t really have any concerns about that. Basically, I’m concerned with right here, right now. And currently he’s a very good student, a great listener, a hard worker, and that’s what we’ve been seeing.

“Will there be times when he’ll make contact out of the strike zone and/or will miss out of the strike zone? Yeah. But he has that ability to put those balls in play at times. When he does that with a man on second in the bottom of the ninth, and he drives in a run, that’s a good feeling.”

It’s definitely an oversimplification to hang all the blame on a coaching staff just trying to do its job, but whatever the cause, it was clear the fun-loving Castro wasn’t having much fun in 2013. According to him, when he’s struggling, the underpinnings are almost always mental, not physical. Enter the unfailingly positive Rick Renteria and the Cubs’ 2014 coaching staff.

Renteria and Mueller’s goal from the beginning of Spring Training has simply been to get the All-Star back to his elite form—and if that means he swings at a few pitches out of the zone, so be it. Mueller has said he never tries to remake a hitter. He instead looks at what works for that player, and tries to maximize it.

“What we’ve tried to do is look at some of the stuff he was doing approach-wise from last year and just upgrade it and/or minimize it and/or ask him questions about it,” Mueller said. “We just tried to say, ‘In 2010 and 2011, you had a lot of success. I think what you were doing approach-wise was a very good approach, and that’s what we want to see. Will you consider or think about that type of way again?’ And he considered it, and I think it’s been working great so far.”

ON THE UPSWING
After experiencing almost nothing but success for the first three years of his career, the 2013 campaign was Castro’s first real career crossroads. And he responded exactly how you’d want a young player to respond—with a fierce determination not to let it happen again.

He spent much of the offseason at the renowned private training facility IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The goal wasn’t just to get his swing back, but to improve his defense, agility and fitness.

Castro came into Spring Training 2014 looking decidedly more muscular and said he was in the best shape of his life. Unfortunately, an early-spring hamstring injury forced him to miss most of the Cactus League season.

Never one to take a day off—since his first full season in 2011, Castro has missed a grand total of five games—he jumped into the Opening Day lineup with almost no live Spring Training at-bats. Not surprisingly, he came out of the chute struggling, going 2-for-17 with five strikeouts in his first four games.

But from that point on, he picked things up to the tune of .302/.344/.506. The key, Castro said, is that he has his confidence and aggressiveness back and feels he can hit any pitch. So far this season, his line drive rate is up to 22.3 percent, and his strikeout rate is down to 16.3 percent, both better than his career averages. The more times a player makes hard contact, the better the outcomes are likely to be.

“You can tell a guy like me that always swings, ‘Hey, take some pitches,’” Castro said. “It’s not easy for me. … That’s why the guys on top they tell me, ‘Hey, be the player that you always be. Do whatever you know how to do. Be aggressive at the plate like you always be.’ And that’s what I’m doing now.

“I lost some aggressiveness last year. I’m going to feel really aggressive this year. If I strike out, that’s OK. I’ll get another at-bat. That’s the confidence that I didn’t have last year. If I strike out last year, next at-bat, strike out again. This year, I feel more comfortable that I can go to home plate and have a great at-bat.”

PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
In the countless ruminations on Castro and his future, the one point that often gets missed is what a hard worker he is. There’s a common misperception that he is checked out of games because of his occasional mental lapses. But the view of Castro in the clubhouse is much different.

“He’s one of those guys who’s the face of the team,” Castillo said. “I know a lot of people got on him last year, but that’s in the past. We have to move forward. It brings a lot of confidence for the team when he’s playing like this, when you see Starlin on the field. That’s a guy that never wants to be out of the lineup. He wants to play every day, no matter what. So he brings a lot of energy and a lot of positivity to the team.”

In his five big league seasons, Castro has played for four different managers, and each has taken a different approach to try to get the most out of him. But no coach has had issues with his work ethic, passion or coachability.

This year, Castro immediately connected to Renteria, Mueller and assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley. Much has been made of the fact that Renteria speaks Spanish, and thus can better communicate with Latin players, and there’s definitely something to that. But the new regime also believes in positive reinforcement and in helping players maximize their individual strengths, and that seemed to click with Castro. Renteria said the staff spends a lot of time talking to the young shortstop, even during games, to reinforce their messages.

Another seldom-mentioned positive is that Castro has been willing to do whatever the Cubs have asked of him throughout his career. Aside from rarely taking a day off, he’s batted almost everywhere in the lineup. This season, he’s hit second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth, and last year he got some at-bats from nearly every spot in the order.

He said he tries to model himself after players like Derek Jeter and fellow Dominican Miguel Tejada, and learned a lot about how to be a professional from former mentor Alfonso Soriano.

Castro shocked many critics this offseason when he quickly defused concerns about a brewing animosity between him and shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who many expect to make his debut with the Cubs this year. When Castro was asked if he would switch positions to accommodate the power-hitting phenom, he said he would because his primary focus is on winning. He even acted as a mentor to the game’s No. 6 prospect (MLB.com) throughout the spring.

“Me and him, we’re good friends,” Castro said. “We don’t have anything bad because he’s a shortstop and I’m a shortstop. You play baseball, I play baseball. You’re good, I’m good. Whatever spot they put me, whatever spot they put you, if we be together, we’ll be all right. Our job is to win games.”

Of course, despite Castro’s success in 2014, one month does not a season make. In order for him to prove he’s truly a cornerstone player for the organization, he needs to find consistent success—on offense and defense—over 162 games. But at a time when the Cubs desperately need their young veterans to step up, especially as their top prospects get nearer to the major leagues, Castro is looking better in every facet of the game. He’s hitting to expectations, throwing his body around on defense and having fun on the field again.

“The run of the season will give a real indication of how he’s done and how he’s moving forward,” Renteria said. “You can’t really know what a season is in a week. You have to give it a season. But are we moving in the right direction? I think so.”

That’s great news for Cubs fans—and terrible news for opposing pitchers.

—Gary Cohen

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