Starlin Castro’s season has been like a bad teen-centric rom-com. You know the story: female protagonist goes from frumpy to fab, wowing her superficial classmates. Of course, she’s been super attractive the whole time, but you’d never know it because of her glasses and ponytail. All it takes to takes to make her the hottest girl in school is a little makeover.
Likewise, Castro’s game had been looking pretty ugly earlier this season. He seemed to be guessing at the plate, beating everything into the ground when he made contact, and he appeared tentative and detached in the field as well. The former NL hits leader just looked lost at times. Joe Maddon decided it was time for a makeover, so he benched his starting shortstop and made him part of the meritocratic system of playing time.
And did Castro ever respond. Prior to his benching, Castro’s groundball rate was 56.9% and his strikeout rate 16.8%. In the nearly two months since, those numbers are 12.4 and 46.5. His hard contact improved significant as well from 21.7% to 29.4%, and it shows in the 6 home runs he’s hit in the last 43 games vs. 5 in the first 104 he played.
Castro went from slashing .236/.271/.304 to .365/.383/.591 and improved his wRC+ from 53 to 164. That’s a massive increase, from 47% worse than the average MLB hitter to 64% better. So what happened? How did he turn it around? To hear him tell it, the solution wasn’t all that complicated.
“I’ve been through a lot of bad things,” the second baseman explained. “It’s made me think too much sometimes, but I’ve just kept it strong and been available for the team.
“I never put my head down. I know my talent. I trust my talent. I was always confident good things are coming up.”
There do appear to be some tweaks in his approach too. Not only does his stance looks slightly less open, but he’s also being more aggressive. To wit, Castro’s walk rate has been almost non-existent since the move to the other side of second base. It’s not as though his 4.1% walk rate as a shortstop was all that great, but the 1.7% he’s sporting since August 11th is nigh imperceptible. But when you’re batting over .400 in September, no one really cares about your walks.
Baseball is a mental game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always a thinker’s game. Or perhaps a more accurate statement would be that it’s not an over-thinker’s game. If you’re unable to temper anticipation with reaction, you’re going to be eaten alive. What I always loved about Castro was that he always seemed to be an instinctive player, a guy who just attacked the game. Many mistook that for a lack of preparation, but it was more an ability to act based on what he knew from both hard work and instinct.
But what I saw from him this season — and in his poor 2013 campaign as well — was a player bound up by too much guesswork. He let the game play him and was pressing to the point that he had completely Papelbon-ed out his natural talent. I think some of that may have come from having Addison Russell playing alongside him too. Castro had no doubt heard the whispers about the kid eventually taking over and I’m sure that impacted him.
When you know a change is coming, the anticipation of it is the worst. Castro was essentially playing those first 104 games with his head in the guillotine as he waited for the blade to drop. Rather than remove his head when it fell though, it severed the thoughts that had been tied up there. Finally freed from expectations — some of which were his own — Castro has been able to excel again.
Perhaps no game has been more indicative of the new/old Starlin than Wednesday night in Cincinnati, when he went 4-for-5 with a home run, 2 RBI, and 3 runs scored. And then there was the diving stop he made on a ball ticketed for center field off Brayan Pena’s bat. Castro laid out, slid a couple feet out into the outfield grass, and, in a seamless motion, rose and fired over to Anthony Rizzo to throw the runner out. Pena could do nothing but point respectfully and applaud the effort. Jon Lester did the same.
Castro’s used to other players clapping for him by now though, the infectious beat of his walk-up music leaving everyone powerless to do anything but.
It’s not just his peers who are celebrating Starlin Castro these days, either. After going from next big thing to sympathetic figure to pariah and then back, fan support seems to be at an all-time high for a player still 6 months shy of his 26th birthday. If the Cubs are going to make some noise in the postseason, Castro’s going to be a big part of it. And when that happens, I don’t think Jimmy Dugan’s advice is going to do any good.