As Starlin Castro’s batting average has sunk further and further below the .300 mark we all expect him to hit at, there has been an ever increasing sentiment amongst Cubs fans and baseball media (read: Twitter) folks that the Cubs should let Castro return to the type of player he was in his first two seasons of his career. They think that the Cubs have tried to shoehorn him into an approach that he is not comfortable with, one that he is not capable of succeeding with. Strongly implied is the idea that Epstein and Co. are trying to force a one-size-fits-all, walk-heavy approach on their hitters, to the detriment of Castro and, to a lesser extent, Javier Baez. Why can’t they just let Castro be the 5% BB% guy of years past?
It’s because it’s not about walks.
Well, OK, so an increased walk rate may be a benefit of the adjustments the Cubs are working with Starlin on, but the impetus of the adjustments was to avoid Castro becoming stuck in his unsustainable approach permanently. mb21/DMick89 over at Obstructed View had a great post that delves more into why Castro’s success was unsustainable, so I’ll just cover the main point: Starlin Castro’s BABIP, .345, was far too high for a moderate-speed, bad-ball hitter to sustain.
Increased power could offset a declining BABIP and help his batting average stay in the .290-.300 range, but the poor swings lead to a negative feedback cycle where pitchers offer fewer and fewer good pitches to hit. Castro likely swung at poor pitches far too often for his power to develop past the .150 ISO range, because it’s tough to really drive the ball when you’re off-balance. And Castro’s increasing size, where the extra power would be coming from, is only going to eliminate more and more hustle doubles.
Castro’s BABIP regression and a power ceiling he was unlikely to tap into due to horrendous plate discipline leaves him roughly a .280/.320/.430 guy going into the future. As a league-average defensive shortstop, that’s an acceptable line, but ultimately underwhelms compared to the massive ceiling we saw when he broke into the league as a 20 year old.
That enormous ceiling still exists within Starlin Castro, but it’s not present in his current game and will not manifest itself without the right tool – selectivity. All the adjustments the Cubs are trying to make right now have to do with increasing Starlin’s selectivity in an attempt to unlock the potential beast within Castro.
Selectivity is not about taking walks, not directly at least. It is about recognizing the pitches you can drive and laying off of the ones you cannot. Walks are a happy outcome of a good process at the plate, but the point of a selective approach is driving a higher percentage of the pitches you swing at. The logic is simple: swing at only pitches you can drive -> start driving more pitches -> better power numbers. Once a player can establish themselves as a power threat, they’re also likely to start seeing fewer good pitches, leading to a few more walks just out of respect from pitchers.
The good news is that Starlin appears to be capable of a selective approach. According to this fantastic article from R.J. Anderson, Starlin swing less often than league average in 0-strike counts and only a little more often than league average in 1-strike counts. What this says, to me at least, is that Starlin has all the tools to form a selective approach in all counts. Unfortunately, learning to swing less in 2-strike counts is going to be incredibly uncomfortable early on. He’s going to have to learn that weakly grounding out on a ball on the corner is no better than taking that pitch for a third strike.
He’s going to struggle. But the potential reward for sticking to this approach through rough times is massive, and the Cubs need Starlin to be more than a league-average shortstop in the future if they want to develop a world series contender. I truly believe that Starlin has the frame and natural barrel-to-ball ability to hit 25 home runs with a .300 average in a peak season or two down the road. To reach such numbers, numbers impervious to wild BABIP swings, Starlin is going to have to learn to lay off poor pitches late in counts and wait for more manageable pitches.
If Starlin were to cultivate a more selective approach, it wouldn’t necessarily mean his walk rate would increase – Starlin Castro was born to swing the bat – but the approach could ensure that more of his swings come against pitches he can rope all over the field. This may lead to a better walk rate, but such an outcome is ancillary to the main goal of unlocking an all-star-level (4-5 WAR) shortstop.
The new approach and adjustments are not about walks. They’re about Starlin crushing the ball, and if the walks come with that, then so be it.