Commentary

Heading the wrong way

Starlin Castro and the Cubs are eager to find a fix for his fourth-year struggles

Updated: July 7, 2013, 8:00 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Starlin Castro's head was down before Sunday's game, but only because he was watching video on an iPad propped up in his locker.

"I never put my head down," the slumping Chicago Cubs shortstop said. "I always put my head up. I'm positive. I know I can finish strong."

Castro's head has become the most hotly debated body part for a Cub since Mark Prior's shoulder.

The 23-year-old Castro's head has been blamed for a wildly disappointing fourth season in which he's regressed at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths.

This season, he hasn't hit for power or average. He strikes out, doesn't walk, doesn't move guys over. His defense has been spotty, at best, and his overall baseball IQ has been questioned almost daily as he often looks lost or uninterested.

Some fans have turned on him, while others strain credulity in defending him (His Baseball Reference page is sponsored by Matt, who wrote: "If you don't like Starlin Castro, go step on a land mine.")

[+] EnlargeStarlin Castro
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhStarlin Castro hasn't produced this season at his previous high level.

While Castro, a two-time All-Star, said he's stayed positive, his value is currently measured as a negative.

Going into Sunday's 4-3 series finale win over Pittsburgh, Castro was tied for last in position player WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in all of baseball with a -1.3 WAR (FanGraphs) and a -1.6 (Baseball Reference).

"There's no on-base and there's no slugging," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said before Sunday's game. "And this year he's striking out a lot. He's not just struggling, he's striking out a lot."

More than 18 percent of his at-bats (going into Sunday's game) -- nearly four percent more than his previous worst season -- have resulted in strikeouts. When he does hit the ball, his BABIP (batting average balls in play) is .279, well below his career average of .325.

In a season already worth forgetting for the fire-sale Cubs, Castro has been the distracted, frustrated face of a franchise.

"He's gotten gradually into some really bad habits he's got to get out of," Sveum said. "He's gotta get back to the mechanics he had in 2010."

So it's not mental? Well, not totally.

"Oh, it's mechanics," Sveum said. "When you get to that point, it gets to be mental, too. But mechanics have caused a lot of the problems. The bottom line is hitting the fastball. All the problems come from not hitting the fastball."

How bad has Castro been at hitting fastballs? According to FanGraphs, when you look at 100 fastballs thrown to him (wFA/C), Castro is producing -1.82 runs compared to average. In layman's terms, that's bad.

Castro really, really can't hit cut fastballs and is pretty bad against sliders and curveballs, too.

If you're not in sabermetrics, you could just look at his .234 batting average, his four home runs and his 69 strikeouts and extrapolate his performance yourself.

If that doesn't work, the ol' eye test won't fail you.

Shove his struggles on defense aside. Forget about his lapses running the bases. The Cubs locked him up early with a $60 million contract extension (he makes $5 million this year) because he can hit, especially for a shortstop.

Now as he struggles, the book is out on him. Castro is seeing more fastballs and sliders than in previous seasons. He hasn't been able to adjust.

"When guys are struggling, you'll notice they're fouling really good fastballs off so now they're in 0-2, 1-2 counts," Sveum said. "They got pitches to hit, they just didn't. When you're going good, you get the good pitches to hit and you do something with them. When you're bad, it's the 1-2 count, it's the 0-2, 3-2, but you had one or two pitches you could've drove and you fouled them off, or swing and missed, or mentally go, 'I think he's going to throw me a slider here or this to me.' Now you're thinking too much and the ball's on top of you because you're worried about failing and all that. It's a combination of all that, but usually you can just look and say he hasn't been able to hit the fastball."

On Sunday, Castro defied the odds with a stand-up double off a 1-1 fastball from A.J. Burnett in the third inning. After fouling off a 93 mph fastball, he smoked the next pitch, virtually the same one also clocked at 93, to the gap in right-center field. He later scored from third on Alfonso Soriano's sacrifice fly to center.

With the new front office regime in its second season, much has been made of the organization's shift in hitting philosophy. The Theo crew shake their collective heads at the fundamental flaws they see in organizational leftovers when it comes to plate discipline. They want hitters to be selective, not passive, aggressive with a team-wide commitment to wearing down pitchers.

"It's a whole package," Sveum said. "It's being a winning hitter. It's not getting hits, it's being a winning hitter."

What is being a "winning hitter?"

"Doing things to help your team win when you don't get hits," Sveum said. "Whether it's moving a guy, hitting sacrifice flies, whether it's getting a guy in from third with less than two outs. You go on and on."

After trying to work with Castro, who walks at a Soriano-esque rate, it's probably best to let him ply his trade as he knows how. You don't get to the majors at 20 without some serious gifts.

"I can't do something I never do," Castro said. "Aggressive at the plate, not everyone can do that. A lot of people can go to home plate and take a walk, but not everyone has that kind of ability to go to home plate and swing. I tried it, not swinging at bad pitches, swinging at the right pitches."

For now, the Cubs are just worried about helping him climb out of this slump.

"You do the best you can," Sveum said. "Part of that is going out and putting him in the lineup every day. That's the confidence you have in guys like that. You put them in there and it's up to them really to come out of it and start swinging the bat."

Castro said, the "only good thing" about his slump is "you have another opportunity every day."

As for the criticism, Sveum summed it up by saying he's "a guy that's already had 200 hits in the big leagues, he's a shortstop and he's in Chicago."

The Cubs are putting together a core of players to build around in the next few years, with the onus on contending maybe as soon as 2015.

Could Castro go from founding member of that core to trade bait by the winter meetings? It's not impossible. Javier Baez just got promoted to Double-A, and he's coming quick. But you don't deal a player like Castro when his value is low.

Either way, the Cubs have a lot invested in the success of Castro and Anthony Rizzo, their only two building blocks in the lineup.

"Those are the core players that we've paid," Sveum said. "Those are the guys you're counting on. You're not counting on them right now to be leaders or anything like that. You're counting on them to understand and make themselves better players to make us win. When we're ready to really take off and win, those guys have to be ready to be the guys that are helping the Baezs and (Jorge) Solers when they get there, to be better players and win."

Will Castro be around to be a mentor? That's up to him.

When it's mentioned that baseball is a very difficult game to play, Castro nods his head.

"Everybody says that," he said. "I know right now it is."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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