The first three years of Starlin Castro's career tell the story of a player steadily progressing toward, if not greatness, at least very good-ness. He racked up more than 1,800 plate appearances by time he turned 23, so despite his youth we had a strong idea of the sort of player he was heading into 2013. He was a player who, when he made contact, squared the ball up with regularity, but had poor plate discipline. He posted a career-high 14 home runs and .147 ISO in 2012, so it also looked like he could be growing into the 18-to-20-homer guy many projected him to be when he was in the minors. With good reason, he was at the top of the second tier of shortstops, and looked capable of breaking into the Tulowitzki-Reyes-Ramirez group.
And then the wheels fell off.
Castro regressed in every way in 2013. He hit .245/.284/.347, all career lows. His line-drive rate fell beneath 20 percent and his ISO nearly dipped below .100. His strikeout rate surged to 18.3 percent while his walk rate fell to a paltry 4.3 percent, the worst of his four years in the league. His Fangraphs WAR was -0.1 and his Baseball-Reference WAR was -0.6. Even his baserunning slipped, as he posted -2.2 baserunning runs and stole just nine bases after swiping 47 in the two previous seasons combined. The Cubs were supposed to be bad last season, but at least they could count on the continued maturation of budding star. Castro did not hold up his end of the bargain. In the debut of our 2014 Burning Questions series, we ask what happened to him last year, and ponder if he can bounce back in 2014.
Given Castro's profile, you might expect that a bad problem -- his propensity to swing at anything a pitcher throws in his general direction -- got worse last season. The numbers, however, do not bear that out. According to Fangraphs, Castro's O-Swing percentage, the rate at which he swung at pitches outside the strike zone, was 33.7, a touch below his career average. He swung at 47.8 percent of the pitches he saw last year, which tied a career low set in his rookie season. While offering at one-third of pitches outside the zone is still far too high, that alone does not explain Castro's precipitous 2013 decline.
We need to pull in a few more numbers to figure out just what happened to the Cubs' shortstop last season. First, pitchers knew that they could get him out without throwing a strike. Of all the pitches Castro saw last year, 45.2 percent were in the strike zone, the lowest share of his career. In addition to that, he simply made less contact. His 82-percent contract rate was a new career low, while his 8.5-percent swinging-strike rate set a new career high.
Most telling of all, however, was the way Castro struggled when he got himself in hitter's counts. While his plate discipline remained poor last year, Castro worked more positive counts than any other season in his career. He had 111 2-0 counts and 67 3-1 counts a season ago. His previous career bests were 89 and 53, respectively. Unfortunately, he did not capitalize on his advantage when he got ahead of the pitcher. Castro's slash after 2-0 last season was .256/.396/.411. After a 3-1 count, it was .239/.478/.304. It seems nearly impossible for a player to slug just .304 on 3-1 counts, but Castro found a way. His line-drive rate for the entire season was 19.9 percent. Somehow, that number plummeted in plus counts. Of all the balls he put in play on a 2-0 count, 15.8 percent were line drives. On 3-1 counts, his line-drive rate fell even farther, to 13.2 percent.
This is different breed of undisciplined altogether. It suggests a player who got too jumpy when the count was in his favor, rather than understanding that the onus was on the pitcher to come to him. It hints at a guy who still doesn't understand the value of a walk. Castro may be young in life, but he's no longer a young baseball player. While it's alarming that a player with four full seasons under his belt could still struggle this deeply with pitch selection, it's a problem that can be fixed, especially since he showed an understanding last year of how to work a pitcher early in the count.
Add it all up, and I'm optimistic for 2014. Castro's batted-ball numbers were essentially flat across the board. His line-drive, ground-ball and fly-ball rates were all well within one standard deviation of his career numbers. His pop-up rate was 7.6 percent, a full point-and-a-half lower than in 2012. His HR/FB ratio dropped to 6.3 percent, but it was still better than his career average. After putting up BABIPs of .346, .344 and .315 in his first three seasons, Castro's had a .290 BABIP last season. His 2013 spray chart doesn't suggest that teams were shifting more on him last year and turning balls that had previously fallen for hits into outs, which could help explain a declining BABIP despite steady underlying statistics. If he merely stays in line with his career batted-ball numbers, his BABIP, and therefore every component of his slash line, should rise.
Castro's environment in Chicago may not be much better than it was last year, but he can organically improve his counting stats just by getting on base more often than 28.4 percent of the time. If he can successfully tweak his plate discipline in hitters' counts, there is little doubt that will happen. In redraft leagues, he's the No. 7 shortstop on my board.
Reinforcements are on the way for the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo still has the tools to be a legitimate masher in the middle of the lineup, and the Cubs feature the league's best stable of hitting prospects with Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. The first of them could arrive as early as this season, though likely not early enough to make a huge difference. The Cubs also appear set to go on a spending bonanza when the time is right. This is an offense trending in the right direction, and Castro remains a talented, 24-year old playing a hard-to-fill position in fantasy with two 200-hit seasons in his rear view mirror. If I were in a keeper league, I wouldn't let him get away.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONS:
• Part I: Can Starlin Castro bounce back in 2014?
• Part II: Is Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for owners?
• Part III: Should Doug Fister be considered a top pitcher?
• Part IV: Is Eric Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?
• Part V: How will Chris Davis follow up his successful 2013?
• Part VI: Will Brandon Phillips rack up 100+ RBI again?
• Part VII: What can owners expect from Josh Donaldson?
• Part VIII: Is Hanley Ramirez worth the risk of injury?
• Part IX: Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his power stroke?
• Part X: How should owners value Javier Baez, George Springer?