During his chat last Wednesday, Dave Cameron ranked the top MLB shortstops as Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes, and then a huge chasm before the next best guy. As we are no longer in the era of offensive shortstops, the guys who can swing a big stick like Tulo really stand out from the crowd. I agree with Dave for the most part, but there is one guy I would add to that list who is quickly closing the gap on Reyes: Starlin Castro.
Castro doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention other than when he is screwing up, but he is one of the best young pure hitters in the game. There have been a lot of knocks on Castro thus far in his young career which has led to the lack of respect. His defense is suspect at best, he doesn’t walk much and there have been some attitude/effort problems. These are legitimate concerns. Talented players can wash out if they don’t have their head screwed on straight, and he loses some serious value if he has to move off shortstop.
My counter-argument to these points: Through his age 21 season he posted a 103 wRC+ across 1221 PA. Troy Tulowitzki was still wearing a Long Beach State Dirtbags uniform at the same age. To put that in perspective, only 47 players since the deadball era have even accumulated 1000 PA before their age 22 season, let alone post above league average offensive numbers. Among these 47 players, Castro’s 103 wRC+ mark comes in at #29. I’ll let you take a guess at how many of the guys above him did it at shortstop.
Obviously all of these players were better hitters than Castro at the same age, but that list includes five Hall of Famers (assuming induction for Rodriguez and Griffey), which is impressive considering center fielders are notoriously underrepresented in Cooperstown.
I’m not trying to predict future greatness for Castro here. There are a lot of variables at play. If he can’t stick at shortstop much longer, as many scouts suspect, he isn’t quite as special. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate what he is doing right now. Sure, his play on defense is at times laughable, but since he stepped foot on at MLB diamond at age 20 in 2010, only five shortstops have posted a higher wRC+ than him. He also does it in an exciting way. I appreciate the value of a walk as much as the next fan, but there is something to be said for a guy who puts the ball in play 80% of the time, with 20.3% of those being line drives and only 6.2% as infield flies. Add 16 triples, 64 stolen base attempts and .308 average into the mix, and he is a fun guy to watch at the ballpark. If I’m a GM trying to win a World Series, I probably want Andrus due to his stellar fielding and plate discipline, but if I’m Joe Sixpack heading out to the park, an afternoon in the bleachers at Wrigley watching Castro hone his craft sounds like a pretty good time.
So far in this young season, Castro has posted a .359 wOBA on the strength of a .392 BABIP. While this is high for a guy even with Castro’s swing and speed, he has shown that he can operate comfortably in the .340-.350 range. ZiPS projects a rest of season wOBA of .338, which would put him right around last season’s production. Given his age and the fact that his plate discipline numbers can’t get any worse, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him best that projected mark.
As a guy who relies on his batting average to maintain most of his value, Castro isn’t exactly a SABR darling, but value comes in many packages, and Castro is an example of how a high-contact/low-walk approach at the plate can still produce a valuable player.