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The Resurgence of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo

The struggles of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo during the 2013 season were well documented. Chicago Cubs fans’ hopes and dreams rested on these two young players to be the cornerstones of the long and painful “rebuild” on the North Side and it appeared that maybe they were not cut out for such lofty expectations. The lineup around them offered little in the way of quality. Pitchers shifted most of their focus on these two and they struggled terribly. Starlin Castro owned a triple slash of .245/.284./.347. which led to the questioning of his focus and ability. Anthony Rizzo did not exactly turn any heads either, batting .233/.323/.419. At least Rizzo’s peripherals offered some hope that some positive regression was in store for the 2014 season. To say the least, 2013 was a down year for both young players.

When the 2014 season arrived, the script was quite different. Castro and Rizzo set out to silence the critics. With the disappointing 2013 season in the rearview mirror, both are producing at all-star levels so far this season. Castro’s mainstream statistics look spectacular, with a triple slash of .287/.331/.484 including 11 home runs and 43 RBIs (already matching his 2012 counting stats). That production at the premium position of shortstop makes it all the better. Here’s a look at Castro’s underlying statistics from 2013 and 2014:

O-Swing% BB% K% ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
2013 32.6 4.3 18.3 .102 .280 70 -0.1
2014 29.8 5.5 17.2 .197 .356 122  1.7

Castro has improved greatly across the board. He is swinging at less pitches out of the zone which is paying dividends towards his BB% and K%. He ranks 3rd in both wOBA and wRC+ among all shortstops, behind Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez. It is amazing to think that he is still pre-peak in the power category since he has been in the MLB for almost five full seasons. He is on pace for a career high in home runs this year collecting 11 so far. I think that it is safe to say that last year’s Castro was an illusion. He appears to be on his way to stardom just as the Cubs rebuild comes to a close.

Over at first base, Anthony Rizzo looks like the player Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer thought he was going to be when they traded for him. This year, his production is nothing short of spectacular with a .278/.400/.506 triple slash including 15 home runs and 48 RBIs. That production is drawing comparisons to Joey Votto. The growth in his game can also be seen in his sabermetric stat line from 2013 and so far in 2014:

O-Swing% BB% K% ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
2013 31.1 11.0 18.4 .186 .325 102 1.6
2014 26.9 15.5 19.4 .227 .393 148  2.6

Just like Castro, Anthony Rizzo drastically improved across the board (minus K%). Rizzo ranks 4th in wOBA and 5th in wRC+ among all first basemen. He has improved his defense and looks very comfortable at the plate. He too is on pace for a career high in home runs, racking up 15 already. Rizzo is showing that he can be a huge threat at the plate for years to come.

This was a crucial season for both Castro and Rizzo. The Cubs organization, having given out long term contracts to both, depended on them becoming mainstays in the lineup when they finally become threats in the NL Central. With Rizzo on pace for 4+ WAR this season and Starlin on pace for 3+ WAR, it looks like they really are the budding stars that Epstein and Hoyer believed they would be. With these two all-stars, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and the other top prospect talent the Cubs possess, the future looks very bright on the North Side of Chicago.

Is David Price Actually Improving?

Casual fans who look at David Price‘s stat-line this year definitely come away unimpressed. On the surface, his 4-6 record with a 3.97 ERA are sub-par for a pitcher of his caliber, especially one who has been pegged as an ace for his entire major league career. Along with the underwhelming initial stat-line, his average fastball velocity is still down from its apex at about 95-97 MPH to around 92-94 MPH. All of this looks like it spells disaster for both the Rays, who want to ship him out at the deadline for future cornerstone players, and for Price, who is a free agent after the 2015 season.

This table can show you the slight but meaningful decline in Price’s velocity since his Cy Young Award winning season in 2012:

Velocity (MPH)
Fastball    Sinker    Change    Curve    Cutter
2012    96.49       96.17        84.93      79.55     89.88
2013    94.51        94.47       84.72      80.32     89.15
2014    94.38       93.96       85.63      79.88     87.26

But if you delve deep into the world of statistics, it appears that David Price is arguably improving as a pitcher.

His K/9 is sitting at a career best 10.02 along with a career best BB/9 at 0.90. If you look a little deeper at the sabermetric stat-line Price is also performing at a career best FIP and xFIP, which are 2.97 and 2.66, respectively. These two stats portray how Price’s ERA is not indicative of his actual performance. Continuing this trend, his LOB% sits at below average 67.5%. High strikeout pitchers like Price usually have more control over their LOB%, so its very likely that Price will positively regress toward his career average of about 75%. It could even be better due to his increase of strikeouts and decrease in walks. He also is sporting a career high 12.3% HR/FB that is contributing to his inflated ERA.

And if you look even deeper into the statistical world, Price is changing how he pitches—-and its actually improving his performance from its already lofty level. The only problem is the surface stats are not catching up with his actual performance…… just yet. Here is a table that shows Price’s pitch usage over the past three years:

      Pitch Usage
Fastball    Sinker     Change    Curve    Cutter
2012    12.56%    48.39%    12.15%    10.85%    16.06%
2013    15.07%    39.43%    16.61%    11.02%    17.87%
2014    15.97%    40.45%    17.02%    10.93%    15.64%

 With the velocity decrease in mind, the data is portraying that Price has had to adapt as a pitcher in order to continue having success. His fastball and changeup usage has increased because he can no longer blow it by hitters with ease. Along with this:

 Whiff Percentage
Fastball   Sinker  Change  Curve   Cutter
2012     9.24        6.15       12.37      20.25    9.74
2013     9.83        4.49      17.38      6.73       6.29
2014     9.28        9.20      19.09     12.88    12.02

In 2014, Price is rocking better whiff rates than in his amazing Cy Young Award winning 2012 season. His whiff rates have increased across the board other than his curveball. This means that David Price has adjusted his game around his diminishing velocity and has adapted from a power pitcher to a smarter, more crafty pitcher that changes speeds and does not solely rely on velocity to put away hitters. These increased whiff rates are the reason that Price is sporting a career best K/9 ratio. He is throwing a career best 72.1% of pitches for strikes on the first pitch of an at-bat, which contributes to his career best BB/9.

Overall, a simple glance at Price’s stat-line would give the impression that he is declining. But after looking deeper at his actual performance this season, the underlying facts show that he is changing the way he pitches and could quite possibly be getting better. There are rumblings that scouts no longer view Price as an ace that can lead a team deep into the playoffs. From a scouting perspective that may appear to be true, but with the knowledge of these underlying statistics, I believe that Price is still the pitcher he always has been, if not better.