Starlin Castro Shining Bright

It’s funny how quickly we – and by we, I mean us fans – can shift our attention from one top prospect to the next. I like to call this phenomenon the “Shiny New Toy Syndrome”, as we become enamored with the Next Big Thing coming up from the minors and slowly forget the prospects we were falling for a week earlier. Prospects are showered with attention when they reach the majors and their performance is analyzed from 10 different angles. But once those players become established, they fall off the radar — and our attention shifts to the next big prospect. In many ways, prospects are like Christmas presents: anticipation builds until Christmas morning arrives; but within two weeks, the presents are forgotten and tossed in the toy bucket with everything else.

While Michael Pineda is currently dominating the prospect chatter, I want to shift our attention back to a top prospect who made his debut a little less than a year ago: Starlin Castro.

Before the 2010 season began, Castro was the top prospect in the Cubs’ system and one of the top 15 in baseball. He started the season in Double-A, but after tearing through the league with a .367/.413/.560 line through 26 games, the Cubs decided they’d had enough of Ryan Theriot’s defense at shortstop and brought Castro up. The then-20-year-old entered with a bang: he hit a three-run homer in his first at bat, hit a triple later that game and drove in six runs. All eyes were on Chicago.

Castro ended the 2010 season with a very impressive line for a young shortstop. He was roughly league average on offense (.325 wOBA) and slightly below league average on defense (-2.1 UZR). So far in 2011, Castro has blown the doors off the joint, posting a .375/.398/.513 line and a .405 wOBA. Such a fast start is obviously unsustainable, but right now Castro is one of the top-30 offensive players in baseball (as measured by wOBA) and tied for 11th in the majors in WAR. Not bad for a 21-year-old shortstop.

While Castro’s early season streak has been fueled by a .392 BABIP, that might not be as outrageous as you think. Not many players can post a BABIP that high for an entire season, but Castro is a speedy runner who hits a high percentage of balls on the ground. Like Ichiro, we can expect him to consistently post an above-average BABIP. Last season, he hit 20% of his balls for line drives and 51% for ground balls while posting a .346 BABIP. This season he’s only increased those numbers: Castro currently has a 24% line drive rate and a 53% ground ball rate. That’s a relatively high line drive rate, which goes to show how much solid contact Castro is making right now. I wouldn’t expect him to continue to post a .392 BABIP, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he ends the season with a BABIP in the .350 range.

And there have been plenty of other good signs from Castro’s hot start. He’s only striking out in 6% of his plate appearances, which is down from last season’s 15%. While  it’s early in the season and the small-sample caveat applies, strikeout rates are one of the first statistics to stabilize, taking only ~150 plate appearances to become reliable. Castro is currently at 83 plate appearances, and his plate discipline  suggest this change may have something more to it than small-sample-size variance.

Castro is a free-swinger, taking a cut at about 4% more pitches than league average, but he’s improved his pitch recognition from last season. In 2010, Castro was swinging at 32% of pitches outside the zone (3% worse than average), and this season he’s cut that down to 29.5%. While not a huge change, it’s a small step in the right direction and gives hope that Castro might learn to increase his low walk rate (3.6% BB%) going forward.

Also, when he swings, Castro is making contact with pitches at a much higher rate than before. Last season Castro made contact on 75% of pitches outside the zone and 92% of pitches inside the zone, and this season he’s improved those numbers to 84% outside the zone and 96% inside the zone. His overall contact percentage is 92.5% — eighth best in the major leagues — and he’s swinging and missing on fewer pitches this season (3.6% swinging strike rate). For a hitter who relies on putting the ball in play and using his speed to leg out hits, this is exactly what you’d like to see.

Some of these numbers will likely regress as the sample sizes grow larger, but regardless, these are really good signs and Cub fans have reason to be excited. Castro might not have a grip on our attention like he did a year ago, but he’s no less exciting of a player now than he was then. He’s one of the brightest young stars in baseball (I swear, no pun intended), and his future is looking up.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

31 Responses to “Starlin Castro Shining Bright”

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  1. RC says:

    ” taking only ~150 plate appearances to become reliable. Castro is currently at 83 plate appearances”

    Which means there’s about as good a chance that he hasn’t improved at all, as there as that hes improved as much as you think.

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  2. tyler says:

    fuck stats (and i love them). this dude has one of the quickest bats I’ve ever seen. You cannot get a fastball by him on the inner half of the plate. Gary Sheffield/Moises Alou-esque. He’s going to be a star for a long, long time

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  3. Eddie says:

    I can assure you that we Cubs fans haven’t shifted our attention from Castro. He’s the only reason to watch the team these days.

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  4. Boomer says:

    Castro will probably end up with about 4500 hits and 900 doubles in his career.

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  5. Daniel says:

    I don’t think he’s only player on the Cubs worth watching this year but he’s easily the most interesting/exciting. One thing I wonder about him: will his approach change as he grows so that he starts to hit less ground balls? Because he’s not small. Already he’s no longer the tiny, tiny baby that arrived against the Reds last May. He’s growing up and has more to do (he turned 21 during Spring Training). There could be home runs there if he ever hits more fly balls. Not a huge number or anything, but 15 anyway.

    I think he’s going to be a proper star. Forget what I said earlier: Geovany Soto could win MVP and Ryan Dempster the Cy Young and Andrew Cashner could reach into Tim Lincecum’s mind and snatch his change-up like so much candy from a freaky baby and, what the hell, the Cubs could win it all (ha ha!) but if Castro sucks or breaks his leg or suddenly becomes Ryan Theriot 2.0, I think we’ll all be left with a nagging feeling of disappointment.

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    • ToddM says:

      This last paragraph was delightful, although I’m having some serious trouble removing the image of Timmy as a freaky baby from my mind.

      So, thanks… and damn you.

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  6. BC2772 says:

    He’s also only 1 letter removed from a Socialist dictator double-whammy.

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  7. Scott says:

    I just sold him and Valverde for Shin Soo-Choo. I feel like I made the right decision but it still hurt.

    He’s a star, but breakout stars at his age are once or twice a decade.

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  8. CubsFan says:

    Starlin Castro’s at bats are the only thing I look forward to about watching the Cubbies at this point.

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  9. Slats says:

    Castro has nothing on Brendan Ryan.

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  10. Phillie697 says:

    I drafted him as my starting shortstop in the 10th round of a 12-team league after such great shortstops like Stephen Drew, Alexei Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, Elvis Andrus, Rafael Furcal, and Jose Reyes… That was in fact on purpose, since I had the 10th pick and wouldn’t be able to get Hanley or Tulo; believe me, I didn’t forget about him from last season. He’s making me look like a genius right now :)

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  11. Mike says:

    File this under headlines that will be inevitably be over used.

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  12. Enzo says:

    For every “Starlin Castro” the Cubs acquire, they usually get saddled with 3 “Milton Bradleys” who drag the entire team into the dirt. Team players like Marlon Byrd and Aramis Ramirez are too frequently overshadowed by highly paid, self-centered strikeout kings like Alfonso Soriano and guaranteed-outs-with-men-in-scoring-position players like the recently dumped (albeit years too late) Derrick Lee. Get real Cubs fans (I being one of the biggest). Until the Cubs load the team with players who are truly proud to wear the Cubby blue and play the game like Ron Santo, they’ll continue to be the doormat of the National League and NEVER get to the World Series…despite having what might be a short-term, flash in the pan, phenom such as Starlin Castro.

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    • GrouchoM00 says:

      Hmm, Geovanny Soto, Castro, Colvin, Barney, Zambrano, Cashner, Wells, Marmol, Marshall, Wood are all players developed from their own farm system and are all average to above average players in MLB. What the F more do you want?

      The Cubs everyday lineup is better than the overrated one on the South Side and once Wells & Cashner get back, it’ll be a better rotation and I haven’t even mentioned the bullpens yet.

      7th best OBA
      9th best SLG
      8th best OPS in MLB

      All with the wind blowing in and near freezing weather nearly every home game suppressing offense. BTW, how many HR & RBI does Soriano have? Have you actually watched any games this year? I seriously doubt you have. So just shut up already.

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    • Bob says:

      Have to disagree with you on A-Ram being a so-called “team player”, whatever the heck that is defined as. Look, just because the Cubs have been a pathetic organization (no malice intended, I’m a Cubs fan too), nuggets do emerge and Castro is one of them. Just because other phenoms like Corey Patterson and Felix Pie never panned out doesn’t mean that Starlin won’t. True, they may never get to the World Series, but they will have their occasional “stars”. All teams do.

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      Proud to wear Cubby blue? I think the first and only priority should be dudes who are good at baseball. I’d be proud as hell to wear Cubby blue and I would be a godawful major league player.

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    • Tom says:

      Play the game like Ron Santo? You mean rip teammates in the press after they screw up and show up the other team by clicking your heels after a Cub win? I’m old enough to have actually seen Santo play. What I most remember is him hitting into tons of rally-ending double plays. You want to pick someone from that team to play like, make it Billy Williams or Fergie Jenkins. No thanks on Santo.

      And when Ramirez stands at home plate admiring a ball that ends up hitting the wall and not going over it – do you think to yourself, “Good job, team player?”

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  13. Rick says:

    Why so bitter, Enzo?

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  14. Bob says:

    Daniel: hope you were joking about Dempster. He’s been awful so far. HRs are killing him.

    As for Castro, agree on the bat, though I don’t know if he will develop much power. But he’s definately a candidate to hit around .300 every year, albeit he doesn’t walk much.

    Defensively, he’s very poor and I watch every Cubs game (poor me, right?). I’m not talking about errors (gasp!), or even range (his UZR surprises me as to the eye he appears to have decent range actually), but his instincts and throwing mechanics. I don’t see him staying at SS long-term.

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    • Daniel says:

      Well the whole thing was a joke really. The homers have killed Dempster alright but looking at the numbers, it seems like a case of horrendous luck. Who knows, it might last all season, but I think he’ll be fine. He’s never winning a Cy Young, but he’s still very good.

      I’m surprised you describe Castro’s defense as “very poor”. Even just from an errors perspective, it doesn’t seem like this year is going to be as bad as last year. I think his range is excellent and, yeah, he has the occasional decision-making or throwing lapse but surely allowance has to be made for the fact that he’s the youngest player in the big leagues and, well, he’s playing shortstop. It’s not a position you just walk in and master. Experience will presumably stand to him a lot as he acquires it. It always amazed me last year how people seemed to expect a 20 year old to be capable of avoiding mistakes completely.

      Good shortstops are so hard to find. My guess is he’ll be fine defensively as he matures and I doubt he moves from SS any time soon.

      But then I’m hopelessly optimistic.

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  15. Dscott says:

    Just wanted to mention that Castro already has 2 points on Bill James Hall of Fame monitor. He’s working his way to the top. You need about 100 points on the monitor to be selected into the hall of fame. My prediction is about 3-4 points this year. Some statistics I could see Castro getting this year, that would give him Hall of Fame points:

    200 hits
    selected to the all star game
    leading the league in batting average.

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    • Daniel says:

      We’ll see how Chris Archer turns out first. The other prospects I don’t care a whole lot about (let’s face it, Fuld was the Cubs 5th OF this year, it’s unfortunate but I don’t think we would ever have seen him play well in Wrigley). The Cubs have Garza for 3 years. He looks very interesting already. I wouldn’t despair yet.

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      • Tom says:

        Well, you should start caring about Hak Ju Lee. He’s the guy that was slated to move Castro over to second when he got to the majors in two years. And speaking of a small but impressive sample size performance – Lee is currently batting .447 at high A Charlotte.

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  16. Linus says:

    Let’s not crush his fragile ego with hyped up expectations. Remember, right now Sam Fuld has a claim as the MVP…

    Overall the Cubs are going to struggle this year. The question is whether or not we have a chance at putting together a good team within the next 2-3 years, when Castro will hopefully start hitting his stride (and maybe some power), Geo & Cashner in their prime and .. hopefully some new blood that works out via trade etc.

    Man am i hating that Matt Garza trade…

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  17. Dscott says:

    Yeah Garza is good in my opinion, but were they seriously playing for this year? Trading away our prospects hurts when you look at when we might actually have a shot to compete. We can only hope for a playoff spot this year, because although i think our division will be competitive, none of the teams has blown me away to start the season.

    The cardinals won’t compete with their current rotation/ bullpen

    The brewers–probably the strongest team in the division, but defensive woes will keep them in check.

    Reds– Baker is manager, need i say more. (not scared)

    Houston/pirates — no comment.

    No matter how bad the Cubs are, I am confident we can compete with the other Central opponents.

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