Results tagged ‘ Starlin Castro ’
(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.”
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.
Sometimes the gap between perception and reality can be exceedingly wide. What’s visible from the outside is often much different from what is being experienced on the inside.
Case in point, there are essentially two Starlin Castros.
There’s the Starlin Castro the fans see and have a love-hate relationship with. The one who is perceived by some as uncommitted, unfocused and inconsistent.
Much of this characterization is, of course, informed by the 2013 season. After two All-Star campaigns from 2011-12, in which Castro compiled 390 hits and earned a seven-year, $60 million contract, things went off the rails a little last year. Castro slipped to a .245/.284/.347 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line, often looking lost at the plate, bereft of the trademark confidence that defined his early career. That regression, coupled with some defensive lapses, have placed the 24-year-old’s every move under the fan and media microscope.
But there’s another Starlin Castro as well—the player his teammates see. This is the Castro who is putting up remarkable early-career numbers, goes to the post every day, is eager to learn, and brings constant energy and excitement to the clubhouse.
“He’s one of those guys who’s the face of the team,” said Cubs catcher and longtime teammate Welington Castillo. “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.”
Through his age-23 season—which, as we all know, includes one very off year—the Cubs shortstop had compiled 692 hits. To put that into perspective, by age 23, Hank Aaron had 718 hits, Cal Ripken Jr. had 569, Derek Jeter had 385, and all-time hits leader Pete Rose had just 309.
In other words, the guy can rake. It’s difficult to fluke your way into 700 big league hits before you’re old enough to rent a car.
And through the first month-plus of the 2014 season, Castro looked to be back to his early-career form. His aggressiveness is back, and that has Cubs personnel excited about the future. For the June issue of Vine Line, we talk to Castro’s teammates, coaches and the man himself to find out what has triggered the young star’s resurgence.
As part of our ongoing Wrigley 100 series, we also go back to the 1940s at the Friendly Confines, when a group of trailblazing women turned the baseball world upside down. With World War II rationing taking its toll on major league attendance and players being redirected to the war effort, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley and other executives were desperate for a way to reinvigorate the game. Enter the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, popularized in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. We examine the role Cubs ownership and Wrigley Field played in the formation and life of the league.
Finally, with Father’s Day on the horizon, we get a little sentimental. Baseball is a tradition that has always been passed down from fathers to sons. To celebrate the holiday, we talk to current Cubs players about the impact their fathers have had on their lives and careers. Needless to say, when the Cubs take the field 162 times a year, there are some pretty excited dads out there.
For more in-depth stories about the Cubs organization, pick up the June issue of Vine Line, or subscribe for just $29.95. You can also find us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Most of the Cubs offseason was dedicated to speculation about whether young stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo could bounce back from disappointing 2013 campaigns. Through the first two weeks of the season, things are looking good, as both have gotten off to fast starts. While the team’s record might not be indicative of their strong play, the Cubs’ two most important offensive names have played to the level that earned them each seven-year extensions before their 24th birthdays.
Rizzo, who has batted in the heart of the order this season, is hitting .319/.389/.489 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with a pair of home runs, two doubles and eight RBI in 54 plate appearances. Power wasn’t an issue last year, as he was fifth in the National League in extra-base hits, but his abysmal .191 batting average with runners in scoring position limited a lot of the Cubs run-scoring opportunities. This season—in, admittedly, a very small sample—he’s hitting .400 in with runners in scoring position and giving life to the offense.
“I think you try to eliminate the stress that comes in that particular situation,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “The reality is the pitcher’s the one on the ropes at that time. It’s tough to hit in the big leagues. It’s not the easiest thing to do. You’ve got a guy out there on the hill who’s trying to get you out and has a mix of pitches. Then you have yourself, trying to stay within yourself, trying to do what you can do and allow the situation to dictate the type of approach you should be taking. It’s just through trial and error and experience and continuing to talk about it [that we get better].”
Castro, who is two full seasons removed from a 2011 campaign in which he led the NL in hits, looks to be regaining his old form. The 24-year-old’s .300/.327/.460 line is well above where he finished in 2013 (.245/.284/.347), and he looks to be more comfortable at the plate. The shortstop has been batting mainly second or sixth so far and seems to be comfortable in either role.
“When you talk to all the guys, they’re not worried so much about where they’re hitting in the lineup,” Renteria said. “He’s comfortable wherever we put him. The player who ends up putting himself in the position where he believes he should only be hitting in a particular spot, puts himself in trouble.”
Spring is a time for hope, optimism and new beginnings. This season, the Cubs are welcoming a new manager, several new coaches and a host of new players to the fold.
We talked to Cubs personnel, new and old, about the feeling in camp this year and how things are different under skipper Rick Renteria.
We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.
Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:
Cubscast Mesa, Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four
The Cubs opened their Spring Training slate Thursday by setting a single-game Cactus League attendance record at brand new Cubs Park. 14,486 fans showed up on a near-perfect 75 degree day in Mesa, Ariz., to watch the Cubs drop a 5-2 affair to the Diamondbacks. The previos attendance record was set on on March 23, 2013, when 13,721 fans watched the White Sox visit the Dodgers.
Though today was Rick Renteria’s first official game as a major league manager, he said he didn’t have any butterflies.
“It’s obviously my first game as a manager in major league camp, but it feels just like another game,” he said. “We’re getting ready for the season and today’s the first day of basically a test to see how everybody’s doing. We’re going to use it to see what aspects of the game we need to improve on and basically see where everybody’s at.”
Emilio Bonifacio got the game off to an exciting start when he tripled in his first at-bat in the leadoff spot. He was eventually driven in by Luis Valbuena. Renteria compared the speedy Bonifacio to Chone Figgins in terms of his defensive versatility, but reiterated that Darwin Barney is expected to be his second baseman on Opening Day.
“[Bonifacio] is a guy who puts it on the ground and if he gets it through someplace, he’s got a chance to go like he did there—all the way to third base,” Renteria said.
The highlight of the game was Starlin Castro, who went 2-for-2 on the day with one RBI, hitting the ball hard both times.
“[Castro] had some nice at-bats,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “He’s been working, and his body language looks good. The guys look like they’re working together, so it’s kind of moving along. And it’s just the first day, so there’s so much time ahead of us to figure out all that. But it was a good day for him.”
Chris Rusin, who went 2-6 with a 3.93 ERA in 13 starts last season, will face off against the Angels’ Jered Weaver in Tempe on Friday. The game starts at 2 p.m. CST and will be broadcast on WGN Radio.
Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro is one of the few Cubs hitting well with runners in scoring position. (Photo by Stephen Green)
On many occasions throughout Cubs manager Dale Sveum’s tenure, he has made it clear that slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats) is his go-to number when evaluating a player’s approach at the plate.
On paper, the 2013 Cubs’ power stats look good. The team’s .420 slugging percentage is second best in the National League, largely thanks to the squad’s 48 homers (third in NL) and whopping 101 doubles (15 more than the next-highest NL total). But like many stats, these numbers can be a bit deceiving. While displaying strong power stats is never a bad thing, baseball is predicated on timely hitting. As the graph below indicates, the Cubs struggle with men in scoring position compared with other NL teams.
The Cubs sit in the top five of most common statistical categories with nobody on base, but those same numbers drop drastically with men on second and/or third. It’s interesting to note that their home run and doubles don’t decrease, though the slash line takes a huge hit. We also looked at the eight regular position players to see how they have fared with the bases empty versus with runners in scoring position.
Of the eight regulars, just two are hitting better with runners in scoring position than with the bases empty. And while Starlin Castro and Luis Valbuena have a higher slugging percentage with runners in scoring position, the same cannot be said for the rest of the team.
The basic stats make it look like the Cubs have one of the better offenses in the National League, but they’re going to need some more timely hitting for those stats to have an impact in the standings.
Please don’t judge me, but …
I grew up an Atlanta Braves fan. Look, there wasn’t much I could do about it. I moved a lot when I was younger and lived in Atlanta in the early ’80s. With each subsequent move, I was able to follow the Braves because of TBS.
Here’s what I remember about the Braves from my younger days—1981 was a miserable, strike-shortened year; 1982 was a blast until the postseason (a phenomenon I didn’t realize would repeat itself throughout my adulthood); 1983 was solid; and then depression set in.
The Braves were 80-82 in 1984, and that was by far the best it would get until the franchise began its unprecedented run of regular-season success in 1991. The late ’ 80s saw a wretched slide that reached its nadir in 1988, when the team went 54-106.
So why am I recounting this sad chapter from my childhood? I see a lot of similarities between what the Braves were doing in the late ’80s/early ’90s and what the Cubs are doing now.
In 1990, the Braves went 65-97, good for last place in the NL West, 26 games behind the Reds. In 1991, they shocked the baseball world by winning 94 games and getting all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. Since then, they’ve been one of the most stable and consistently excellent teams in pro sports.
But the Braves’ worst-to-first run didn’t come out of the blue. In fact, the team probably wasn’t as bad as its record in 1990. If you look back at the roster, it included names like Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Mike Stanton, Ron Gant and David Justice. All those players had some important things in common—they were young, untested, and between the ages of 20 and 25.
When we talked to Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein for our January issue, something he said resonated with me.
“There are two ways to really improve your team in a hurry from one year to the next,” Epstein said. “One is sign impact players or bring in impact players from outside the organization. The other is to have a wave of young talent that’s approaching their prime years at the same time.”
The Cubs might not shock the world this year, but they’re building that wave of talent—players who can grow together, win together, lose together, and ultimately figure things out together as they move into their prime years.
One of these waves is at the major league level now in Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson. Epstein calls these players the “Cubs core.” And the organization is developing another strong group in the low minor leagues with high-ceiling players like Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Pierce Johnson and Dillon Maples.
In the May issue of Vine Line, we talk to the Cubs core about what it means to them to play in Chicago and how they plan to turn potential into major league success. One thing is clear—no matter what the record said at the end of 2012 or what it says right now—these guys do not buy into the presumption that the Cubs are years away from winning.
We also check in on the new minor league affiliate that is helping develop the next wave of top talent. After eight years with the Peoria Chiefs, the Cubs switched their Midwest League affiliate to Kane County, located about 40 miles from Wrigley Field’s doorstep. There are huge benefits to having a farm team nearby, and the Cougars and Cubs both hope to take advantage of that in 2013 and beyond.
Finally, we look at the other side of the Cubs equation—the fan base. This season, the team has developed an advertising and marketing campaign based on the fierce dedication and undying passion of the best fans in the game. We talk to the stars of the new ads and the Cubs front office to find out how it all came together.
Here’s to a brighter future.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
As the season nears and the rosters continue to get cut down, Cubs fans are starting to get a real sense of what the Opening Day lineup is going to look like. While there are concerns about improving an offense that averaged just 3.78 runs/game (14th in the NL) last year, opposing pitchers should still approach shortstop Starlin Castro with caution.
That’s because the pop in the Cubs’ lineup starts with the team’s projected No. 2 hitter. The 2011 NL hits leader dipped to just a .283 average last year, but saw an increase in home runs from 10 two years ago to 14 last season. It’s worth noting his midseason dip in production coincided with the hiring of hitting coach James Rowson.
Rowson worked extensively with the 22-year-old, especially on plate discipline, which could have been a cause for the slip. But as the season wore on, it appears the work started to pay off. Normally knocked for his inability to draw walks, Castro doubled his first half walk total in the second half of the season.
Though Spring Training numbers can be easily dismissed, Castro’s .476 average with three walks in 25 plate appearances is another example of the progress he’s making. And plate discipline will be more important than ever this year. Batting in front of mashers Anthony Rizzo and Alfonso Soriano should result in better pitches to hit, as opposing pitchers will be reluctant to put Castro on base.
The shortstop will be in the lineup Friday as the Cubs take on the Brewers. Carlos Villanueva gets the start for the 3:05 CST game, which can be seen on MLB.TV. Here’s the lineup Milwaukee ace Yovani Gallardo will face:
CF David DeJesus
SS Starlin Castro
1B Anthony Rizzo
LF Alfonso Soriano
RF Nate Schierholtz
C Welington Castillo
3B Luis Valbuena
2B Darwin Barney
P Carlos Villanueva