What Happened To Castro?

In Minor Leagues by myles15 Comments

Last season was a lost year for Starlin Castro. While many were optimistic about his ability to take a step forward (myself included), quite the opposite happened. Castro got worse, appreciably, in essentially every way.

Castro 2011 0.341 4.9% 13.4% 0.338
Castro 2012 0.323 5.2% 14.5% 0.323
Castro 2013 0.284 4.3% 18.3% 0.28

To give you some idea of how bad Castro's season was, it was BELOW baseball prospectus' bottom 10% projection for him last season – by a lot. Just extrapolating the numbers, it appeared there was around a 1.5-2% chance that Castro would have "reached" his projection. 

There are a few explanations that were given this year as to why Castro struggled so mightily. I'm going to dive into this profile this year and try to figure some out.

The first thing I wanted to look at was the type of pitches that he was seeing this year. For this, I used Brooksbaseball. I've had arguments in the past about the relative merits of pitch types for hitters, but I can at least agree that there are 3 general types of pitches: Hard, Breaking, and Offspeed. Out of these, it jumps out to me that there is essentially no change at all in the profile, save a 3.5% shift from breaking stuff to hard stuff.

Next, I looked at swing percentages. If these numbers were down, then there would certainly be some truth to the idea that he was hesitating. Lo and behold, he was swinging MUCH, MUCH less this year than last. He offered at 1.3% fewer hard pitches, 2.4% fewer breaking pitches, and over 10% fewer offspeed offerings! Even more interestingly, if you break it down by month, you'll see that he essentially swings at the same number of fastballs all year (save an outlier in April), and the relative same with breaking pitches (though those tend up from 45 to 54% as the year goes on), but his offspeed offer percentage is way down in July, and way up in August. Those aren't particularly meaningful (Castro never saw more than 46 offspeed pitches in a month), but it does sort of illustrate an evolving approach as the season wore on. 

The main culprit is the Whiffs per Swing, though. Before 2012, Castro averaged around 11.3% whiffs per swing on fastballs. In 2012, that number climbed to 13.6%. In 2013, though, it exploded to 16.2%. The problem wasn't just that Castro was taking to many strikes, he was not hitting the balls he normally would. Missing on 5% more fastballs meant Castro had 41 additional swinging strikes this year on fastballs alone. He also missed on 28.7% of breaking pitches, up from 24.7% the previous year. He did connect on 4% more offspeed stuff, but since the overwhelming majority of pitches that Castro saw were fastballs or breaking balls, it isn't as relevant. 

Brooksbaseball has another tab, called plate approach. I'm not exactly sure what it measures, but it also indicates that Castro was slightly more passive this season on hard/breaking pitches, and majorly passive on offspeed stuff (though inline with his non-2012 numbers). Furthermore, Castro's approach got more aggressive in August (not that it helped him any, as his line before and after August 1 is roughly the same). 

One bright spot, however, is that Castro DIDN'T swing at more pitches out of the zone. In fact, it appears that his rate of swinging at pitches out of the zone decreased relative to pitches inside of the zone. The problem is wholly contact-based and not pitch selection based. That's a very, very good thing. 

If you take a look at Starlin's zone profile, you can a pretty stark look at how Castro's contact has eroded. In 2011, Castro missed only 4 of 113 pitches straight down the middle. In 2012, it was 9 of 95. In 2013, it was 19 of 108. That's a huge increase, and speaks to his troubles. In fact, it seems like he couldn't square up on anything up in the zone last year, even if it was a strike up and in the middle. When Castro did make contact early in his career, he was getting hits. His BABIP was .344 in 2011. In 2013, it fell to .290, and it was felt. 

I'm not a professional scout, but given the fairly stark differences in whiffs per swing, and the inability to get squared up on the ball, especially high in the zone, leads me to think that there might be an issue that is beyond the simple mind games that many chalk Castro's struggles up to. I wonder if the bat speed is a little slower than it was in previous seasons.

One last thing which might indicate that Castro was unlucky this year. Last season, 13% of Castro's outs were LD%. Generally, that number is much lower (in the 8.5 to 9.5% range). That would indicate that a higher percentage of Castro's line drives were just not finding holes (that wouldn't be the case if he hit a ton more LD this year than usual, but he didn't hit any more this year than last). 

I'm not trying to pretend like I have all the answers here, but I thought it would be interesting to see what the numbers said about Starlin's season. It appeared to me that he has a little pensive at the plate, but more importantly, he just had worse swings. It appears that that was true. Combine a few steps back with his approach and a few bits of bad luck, and you have one tremendously shitty season. I'm not very optimistic he can return to the player he once was, but I wouldn't be shocked if it happened. I would be shocked if he was this bad going forward. I think a luck-neutral floor of .255/.300/.360 is about right, with below-average defense at SS (though, to me, Castro more-or-less passed the look test defensively for me this year).


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  1. sitrick

    This jibes with what Sveum had been saying about pre-swing motion. I’d be curious to see if, with all the talk about Starlin driving the ball more and hitting for more power, his swing had gotten longer, or if in swinging harder he had cost himself bat control. Both would add up to more swinging strikes, weaker contact, and a slower bat.

    EDIT: fixed for jive/jibe confusion. I am a stupid.

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  2. dmick89

    Agree that Castro won’t be that bad going forward and that he probably won’t return to what he once was either. Like you, I wouldn’t be shocked, but he also had pretty good luck early on that led to inflated numbers. Berselius and I have been saying for a few years that Castro is what Castro is. We said this before 2013. I assume he also thinks he is better than this, but he’s probably about average to below average at the plate and the same defensively. He plays shortstop so he has some value, but he’s also starting to make big boy money.

    I wasn’t unhappy with the extension the Cubs signed him to, but I wasn’t thrilled either. They paid him about what he was worth when you take arbitration salaries into account. I didn’t much like that. The Cubs didn’t get a discount and the contracts looks worse because of it. Especially now.

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  3. Jim L

    @ sitrick:

    This jibes with what Sveum had been saying about pre-swing motion. I’d be curious to see if, with all the talk about Starlin driving the ball more and hitting for more power, his swing had gotten longer, or if in swinging harder he had cost himself bat control. Both would add up to more swinging strikes, weaker contact, and a slower bat.

    It seems to me that Castro was pulling the ball a lot more this year than he has in the past. Lots of foul balls to the left side and weak grounders to third base/SS. I couldn’t find any historical hit charts on him though so I cannot verify that. Does anyone know where to get this type of information?

    If true, that would also jibe with what you were saying regarding long swing/bat control.

    I wonder how the release of Rudy Jarmarillo affected him. I understand why the Cubs let Rudy go in that he wasn’t much about working with hitters about how to approach an at bat (work the count, look for pitches in certain zones, etc) and they needed to bring in someone who better matched with the new organizational philosophy, but Rudy was very good at understanding and working with hitters on the mechanics of a swing (Theo even said something to the effect on this when they let him go). A hitter like Castro (who doesn’t match the organizational philosophy anyway) probably needs a hitting coach who is going to focus on his mechanics.

    Who knows, maybe he needs glasses.

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  4. nick

    What happened to Castro is due to the genius idea of Theo and the Front Office to mess with his approach. He jacked 16 homeruns in 2011( a total that had improved from 3 in 2009, and 10 in 2010) and lost a little of his batting average. If they would have left him alone he could have figured out how to hit several more a season. Instead we saw his batting mechanics change and his swing get longer along with his load-up before he starts his swing. They also wanted him to take more pitches which is another reason why we saw him tardy on 91 MPH fastballs. Starlin could have easily put it all together on his own and put up a .300 average with 20 homeruns this season had they not given him a lobotomy. This is why I am not sold on all these prospects coming up. They basically ruined Castro who has amazing talent. WHo is to say they won’t screw up Baez, Soler and the others???

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  5. dmick89

    @ nick:
    I do think a lot of the blame goes on either the front office or the manager/coaches. I’d lean more toward the front office based on their comments throughout the offseason last year and the season this year. There’s no doubt they made changes and wanted him to make them. There’s also no doubt the front office recognized that late in the year or at the end of the year and is content to let Castro be Castro.

    That said, some of the blame falls on Castro. We can’t put the blame entirely on the front office.

    Who is to say they won’t screw up other prospects? Nobody really knows, but we can look at Boston and see that they developed prospects just fine. Will they screw some up? Maybe. Will they help some out? Probably. what is the cutoff point at which that is acceptable? I don’t know, but I’m guessing the front office is nowhere near the point at which they should just stop offering advice.

    I also think some blame falls on the fans and media. Not for his performance, but for being blind to the fact that Castro struggled in some ways at the plate and that those struggles would keep him from becoming as good as they thought he should be. It would be foolish to say the fans are to blame for his performance. Not to any large degree or anything. It’s not foolish to suggest the fans need to better analyze the player in the future.

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