Better Know a Cub: Starlin Castro

As I try to re-boot this old blog, I thought it would be a good idea to include a post on each player on the Cubs 40-man roster as they enter it. Unfortunately for me (or fortunately, depending), that means I have a backlog of 40 profiles to do. I’m going to start with the people who (hopefully) are long-term parts of our franchise, and work my way forward to the fringes of our team.

Starlin Castro is, as of this post, 22 years of age. The list of 22-year old middle infielders with over 2.5 seasons of experience is pretty low. Here is the list of players to have done it since Castro’s birth:

Alex Rodriguez
Starlin Castro
Edgar Renteria
Elvis Andrus

That’s some pretty lofty company, all told. Of the 4, Rodriguez obviously became an otherworldly talent who went on to win 3 MVPs. I think we’d all be happy if Castro’s career arc resembled A-Rod’s even slightly. The other 2 players on the list are currently being outdone by Castro’s performance (I wish I could learn how to embed the B-Ref page). They both have better gloves than Castro, but the same OBP and a good deal less power.

We’ve established that Castro is a rare talent due to his age. What can we expect going forward, though?

Offense

First, let’s take a look at his BABIP. This usually hovers around .300; any higher and you can get suspicious (though faster players and players that have better bat control may have higher numbers). Castro went from a BABIP of .346 in his first year to .344 to .315 last year. This was the primary driver for his decreased numbers this year; unfortunately, it seems more likely to be the “true” BABIP for Starlin going forward. .350 is a really, really high average; you’d have to be Campana-fast and/or Votto-accurate to reasonably expect an average in that realm.

For Castro to grow offensively, he’s going to have to make his gains in other areas. There are a few ways he could do that:

1. Increase his walk rate.
Castro has tended around 5.2% in BB% for his career, compared to a league average of 8.2%. This is a very feasible thing to increase and the reasons are two-fold. First, his plate discipline has room for improvement. Obviously, gains in this area will directly affect his walk rate. Second, and more importantly, Castro is still growing into some power. His HR% is trending up, as his ISO. As he grows into his power, he’s going to become more dangerous as a hitter. As a result, he should theoretically get worse pitches to hit, which result in more walks.

2. See more pitches.
This is the close relative of the first bullet point. Castro is a tremendously gifted athlete. He can put a bat on a ball with the best of them, and does not strike out very often. His ability to make contact means he can put a lot of balls in play. Unfortunately, those balls are increasingly less likely to result in hits. This ends up hurting the Cubs in the aggregate, because Castro’s PA end early (3.46 P/PA last year) and result in pitchers going deeper against them. If Castro sees more pitches, he’ll inevitably see more pitches that he can actually do something with (and, alternatively, more walks). This is the “selectively aggressive” stance that the Cubs FO is trying to infuse in the organization.

3. Be smarter on the basepaths.
This is a minor gripe, but Castro sure does get picked off at first a lot, and he led the league in CS last year. Those are outs the Cubs quite frankly can’t afford to give away.

All in all, these are relatively doable action items. As it stands right now, Castro is slightly above a league-average bat playing a premium position. If he never gets better than he is right now, he’s still a valuable piece. If he gets better, he’s going to be the type of player you wouldn’t hesitate building your whole club around.

Defense
Castro has been a frustrating defender these past 3 seasons. He led the league in errors both this year and last, and would have led them in 2010 had he played a full season. At his current pace, he’ll be the active leader in SS errors by age 29. However, he also led the league in assists both this year and last. His Range Factor was best in the league last year, 3rd the year before.

Castro’s great strength is the sheer number of balls he can get to. Part of me thinks that’s positioning, but he’s done it through 3 different managers (the fact that Castro has played under 3 managers in 3 years is a little sad.). Even if his conversion rating on these plays isn’t ideal (improving in that respect), I think on the whole it’s a wash. His F2O% has climbed to 88% this year, compared to a league average of 89%, so he’s converting balls fielded into outs at roughly the same rate as the other guys- he just so happens to get to more balls in general than the other guys do.

The problem, of course, is that each play you mess up counts more than the plays you don’t make. That ball deep in the hole is still only a single if you miss; the easy play you throw over Rizzo’s head is now a “double.” Last year, Castro errors resulted in 21 men reaching that would not have otherwise; this probably erodes all of his “good will” in getting to more balls.

That said, he’s improving in this area, and I believe he will continue to improve.

Summary
Castro is under team control for the next 8 years. The contract he is signed to will pay him 53 million through 2019, with a 16 million option (1 million buyout) for 2020. This is a moderately team-friendly contract. According to BR, Castro provided 3.5 WAR last year, and 3.0 WAR the year before that. If he only ever gets to 3.5 WAR, that’s 28 WAR over 8 years for 69 million dollars. That’s still a great deal…and I expect him to improve over time anyway! I am very happy that Castro is a Cub right now, and hopefully will be for a long, long time.

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