Starlin Castro might be playing the best baseball of his career since June 12. That statement might seem odd since his batting average has dropped to its lowest point in his professional career, but there is a strong case to be made that will be laid out shortly. June 12th is an important date for the Cubs and Starlin Castro. The Cubs let go of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo on that date, and Starlin Castro’s batting average sat at a season high .308.
Normally firing the hitting coach is a symbolic gesture for poor offensive performance, which the Cubs certainly qualified for at the time and now. The old expression being you cannot fire the players, but this switch was as much about philosophy change as it was offensive performance. The Cubs are shifting from the free swinging approach of the Hendry era to the patient approach of Theo Epstein created teams, and so the Cubs promoted James Rowson to the Cubs hitting coach on an interim basis.
Heading into the game on June 12th, Starlin Castro was having a season very similar to his first two campaigns. His slash line stood at a healthy .308/.320/.445. The OBP had taken a dip from the .340 range that it had rested in 2010 and 2011 as a result of a noticeable drop in his walk rates, but with the increase in slugging his OPS sat above .750 for the third straight year. His defense was continuing to be questioned. The talk of him moving to another position had increased with his 10th error on June 10th and a well-publicized mental lapse a week earlier in San Francisco. 2012 was shaping up to be what we have come to expect from Starlin Castro.
From June 12th two big trends have emerged that have been observed by nearly all Cubs fans. Starlin Castro’s defense has gotten much better and his batting average has plummeted. Castro in 47 games has made only six errors and talk of Castro having to move to 3B, 2B or OF in the very near future has all but stopped. The negative has been that Castro’s batting average sits at a professional worst .275. During Rowson’s tenure as hitting coach, Starlin Castro’s slash line is a putrid .231/.281/.382. So how can anyone reasonably say that this stretch of play is his best of his career considering he is coming off a 200 hit season?
The slash line hides some real interesting trends about Starlin Castro’s performance that bode very well for the future. Castro has hit more homeruns this season than any year, but the power surge has been most notable during this stretch. Prior to June 12th Castro had 5 homeruns in 60 games which put him on pace for 14 homeruns which would be a career high. Since June 12th Castro has 6 homeruns in 47 games which puts him on pace for 21 homeruns. Castro’s power has increased overall since the switch in hitting coaches with his ISO increasing from .135 to .151.
Patience has been the focus on many Cubs hitters with the change in philosophy that Rowson’s promotion to big league hitting coach signified. Castro was drawing walks at a career low rate which was why his OBP had dipped to below .340 for the first time as a big leaguer. Castro’s walk rates had declined from 5.7% in 2010 to 4.9% in 2011 and falling to 2.3% under Jaramillo this season! Since Rowson has taken over the BB% has jumped to a career high rate of 6.0%.
Strikeouts has increased from 13.4% in 2011 and peaking under Jaramillo this season at 16.6%. Under Rowson the rate has dropped to 15.1%, but that is still higher than any previous season. The huge increase in walks and homeruns ought to negate the slight increase in strikeout rate from his previous two seasons. If Castro is doing so many things right why then is he suffering through the worst slump of his professional career?
The answer lies in batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Castro has historically had a very high BABIP with it resting in the .340s under Rudy Jaramillo (.346, .344, .348). Under Rowson that number has dropped to .248. That is a 100 point drop during the course of the season and 75 points lower than his previous career low. The amount BABIP is luck is debatable amongst hitters, but as shown before Castro is hitting the ball harder than any point in his career. The odds that this is a statistical fluke seems likely given his LD% has held steady throughout his big league career and the increase in HRs and ISO during the stretch which saw his BABIP drop.
Castro’s slash line under Rowson sits at a putrid .231/.281/.382, but let us look at those numbers with BABIP brought more into Castro’s career norms. If we merely raise his BABIP during this stretch to his previous low of .323 (which was during a 31 game stretch at AA in 2009) his slash line would look like this .292/.348/.443. That would put him at a career best .791 OPS and 21 HR if he could maintain this pace for 162 games. If we raise that BABIP to his big league low of .344 the slash line jumps to .310/.364/.461 which would give him an .825 OPS. That would tie Starlin Castro with Ian Desmond for the highest OPS amongst SS. You have to go back to 2009 to find a season with more than 2 shortstops having an OPS higher than .825. Add in Starlin Castro’s improved defense and you see the emergence of an elite level shortstop hidden by a ridiculously low BABIP.
There is no evidence to suggest why Castro’s BABIP is this low during this stretch. It is possible that Castro is never going to reach the same levels previous in his career, but it seems far more likely that regression towards the mean will occur as this season continues. And if he can maintain the walk and HR rates from this stretch we will see Castro take that next step towards being an elite level player with his BABIP falling back into career norms.