Now that the calendar has turned to July and we're closing in on the All-Star break, you're going to see a lot of "best-of-the-first-half" columns. One player who won't turn up on any of those lists: Starlin Castro, who has delivered an absolutely dreadful first half and is really the only reason why any clear-eyed Cubs fan wouldn't call the first three months of the 2013 season a success.
Through 81 games and 360 plate appearances, Castro is hitting .235/.269/.328 with four homers, 18 doubles and seven steals. His -1.3 WAR is the worst among all hitters in the league. (Though good news, Chicago sports fans: Paul Konerko is just ahead of Castro at -1.2 WAR. Go Hawks!) Castro has never been a patient hitter, but he's always been a successful one. He hit .300/.347/.408 as a rookie, .307/.341/.432 the next year and .283/.323/.430 a season ago. The dip in batting average and OBP last season owed largely to a BABIP that fell to .315 after being .346 and .344 in his first two years in the league. What's more, he made strides as a power hitter in 2012, posting a career-best 14 homers, .147 ISO and eight-percent HR/FB ratio. He made little, if any progress, with his plate discipline, but he appeared on a solid, upward trajectory through his first three years. That trajectory has taken a nosedive this season reminiscent of a Chad Pennington deep out. So what has happened?
Ask anyone what Castro's problem is and you'll get some tired trope about his propensity to swing at bad pitches. While that's true in a general sense, it misses two important points. First, he's swinging at 33 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That would match a career low for him, set back in 2010. More importantly, Castro has gotten himself into favorable counts more often this season than any other season in his career.
His first-strike rate is 56.1 percent this year; his previous career best was 59.6 percent in 2011. He has been in a 2-0 count 58 times and a 3-1 count 33 times. His career high for an entire season in those counts both came in 2011, when he saw 89 2-0 counts and 53 3-1 counts. Unless he starts putting the first pitch in play a ridiculous percentage of the time, he's going to fly past both of those marks. So while he's still not walking terribly often, evidenced by a brutal 3.4-percent walk rate, his struggles don't necessarily derive from an overall lack of plate discipline. Rather, they stem from his failure to capitalize on hitter's counts.
In Castro's 58 plate appearances after a 2-0 count, he's hitting .204/.328/.286 with just four extra-base hits. The story is slightly better in his 33 plate appearances in 3-1 counts, but it's still a less-than-robust .280/.455/.320 with one extra-base hit, a double. The league-average line-drive rate is 20 percent, regardless of count. Castro's is 14.6 percent on 2-0 and 10 percent on 3-1. This suggests to me that he gets into swing mode when the count is in his favor, a failure in approach and maturity. It is not purely a plate-discipline problem, though that is part of the equation.
The good news for Castro and his fantasy owners, as well as the Cubs and their fans, is that this should be something he can remedy. The fact that he's getting himself into these counts with more regularity than ever before is a good thing. That he finds himself ahead in the count after the first pitch more frequently than at any point in his career is equally encouraging. Now, he just needs to start taking advantage.