Warming Up the Hot Stove

The most rewarding part of the baseball season for a Cub fan might be the offseason, when one can dream about what yet might be, instead of dwelling on what has already been.  Since my youth, winter has been a time to build hope for another season by scheming over what players the Cubs could acquire to fill their various holes, or anticipating which prospects will be ready to make the leap to valuable contributor to the next great Cubs team.  You may call me optimistic for this outlook, or merely delusional, but it is the means by which I enter a new season with anticipation rather than dread.

As I have grown older, this process has matured and become more realistic without losing hopefulness.  I do not suppose that every free agent stud really wants to play on the North Side, that every prospect will be an All-Star, or that every Cub squad has a realistic path to 90-plus wins.  Having an honest sense of the possible helps me look to the coming season with enthusiasm instead of dread.

In a baseball era of huge money (on all sides), constant coverage and voluminous (often misunderstood and misused) data, there is another route to Hot-Stove fandom that seems to dominate the conversation.  The current conversations happening in Chicago media (newspapers and radio, in particular) exemplify this approach.  The cry goes up, “Trade Starlin Castro! Get something for him while you can!”  The trade partner du jour is the Arizona Diamondbacks, possessors of Justin Upton.  However, this pairing seems to be less about infatuation with Upton, and more about dissatisfaction with Castro.  The primary charges against Castro are:

  1. He’s not the “control the strike zone, work the count, pile up walks” type of hitter Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer prefer.
  2. He’s not good enough defensively to play shortstop.
  3. Javier Baez is almost here anyway, and he’s going to be better than Starlin Castro.

Maybe Theo and Jed will trade Castro for Upton, or for something else, and Baez will begin his ascent to be the next great shortstop to lead the Cubs to the promised land (which would make him Joe Tinker 2.0, I suppose).  Whether that happens or not, though, these arguments are mostly nonsense, built on the slack observation skills and critical thinking for which most radio talk show hosts are famous.

He’s the Wrong Type of Hitter

Lost in the complaint that Starlin Castro doesn’t walk and doesn’t control the strike zone is that he actually showed meaningful improvement in that area in 2012.  On June 12, the Cubs dismissed hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and put James Rowson into the job.  On the day Jaramillo was fired, this was Castro’s batting line:

59 255 6 42 .309 .322 .449 .348

And this was Castro’s batting line for the rest of the season:

102 432 30 57 .268 .324 .421 .294

(Obviously, I didn’t give you everything, but some categories that matter for this conversation)

Look at how Castro’s walk rate jumped – from 2.3% of his plate appearances to 6.9%.  Maybe this is due to random forces.  Maybe he just started walking more.  But look at the numbers in 25 game increments (nothing magical about 25 game increments, just an easy way to divide the games):

25-game block # Walk percentage
1 5.8%
2 6.5%
3 7.7%
4 (last 27 games) 7.7%

That looks to me like Castro was learning something throughout the year, and acting on it.   There is another line in those charts that looks like improved strike zone control – his strikeout rate dropped significantly in the Rowson Era – from 16.5% of his plate appearances to 13.2%.  Walking substantially more, and striking out less doesn’t make him the Dominican Dandy of Walks, but it’s improvement.  It suggests a new level of plate discipline, after two years of decline in that area.

Perhaps you are concerned, though, by that low batting average during the last 102 games of the season (.268, compared to .309 to begin the year, and a .304 mark over his first two seasons).  The last line on that chart I gave you was Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP).  That means what it says – what the batting average was when you take out strikeouts and home runs.  It tends to be a pretty stable number over time for batters, so when you see a big dip in their BABIP number, it tends to mean that they are either having bad luck, or they are hitting fewer line drives (see this for some explanation of that idea).  What does that mean for Castro’s BABIP decline in the last part of 2012?

Well, in July Starlin Castro’s line drive rate was about half of his historic average (11.9%, down from 20.1%) – that was also the worst month of his career, batting-wise.  The rest of the year, though, his line drive rate was normal, which suggests that he was a victim of bad luck.  And, in fact, during the last 27 games of the year, Castro’s BABIP was .340 (almost exactly his pre-2012 career average of .345).  So, what did he do during those 27 games?

117 9 2 2 9 11 318 376 495 871

Raise your hand if you think Theo and Jed don’t want that kind of player.  Since this is the internet, I can’t see you raising your hand, but someone will be along to help you eventually.

He Can’t Play Shortstop

I’ll keep this one briefer.  It’s possible that you think Starlin Castro hasn’t improved as a Shortstop, particularly if you think the only defensive statistic that exists is Errors.

2010: 27

2011: 29

2012: 27

However, there are other defensive statistics.  Fielding Percentage, which is still a pretty limited statistic, shows us that Castro is committing errors on a smaller percentage of his Total Chances:

2010: .950

2011: .961

2012: .964

Now, the league fielding average for shortstops was .970 in 2012, which means that the average shortstop, fielding as many balls as Castro, would have only committed 23 errors.  He was 4 errors worse than average.

Except…Castro doesn’t get to an average amount of balls.  In fact, he led the league in Putouts and Assists in both 2011 and 2012.  He gets to a lot of ground balls.  Some of this is a product of him being very durable and playing almost every inning, but not all of it: he also led the league in Range Factor/G (Putouts and Assists per game) in 2012.  Castro created 4.51 outs in the field per game in 2012, while the average shortstop created 4.26, which means over the course of the whole season, he created 40.5 more outs at shortstop than average.  4 more errors, but 40 fewer hits allowed – seems like a pretty good trade-off  doesn’t it?

Of course, defense is even more complex than that. Maybe Castro gets more ground balls than other  shortstops because of the type of pitchers on the Cubs staff, or because of random luck.  Thankfully, there are now people who chart all of that sort of stuff, to give an even more precise picture of defensive contributions.  Without going into all of those details (you can find them places like Fan Graphs  or Baseball Reference), the consensus is that Castro was  mediocre defensively in 2010, below average in 2011, and average to slightly above average in 2012.  He has a lot of range, he gets his glove on a lot of balls, and he makes some errors that drive fans nuts.  But he’s been getting better, and isn’t a liability.

Javier Baez Will Make Us Forget Starlin Castro!

Finally, there is the assertion that Castro can be moved because the man behind him in the prospect pipeline, Javier Baez, will be pushing him off of shortstop eventually.  This based on Baez raking at low-A ball as a 19 year old in 2012, which Starlin Castro did not do.  Of course, the reason Castro did not do this is that he played his 19 year old season at high-A ball and AA.  Where he held his own.  Baez got 86 PAs at high-A at the end of the year, and his OPS was 87 points lower than Castro’s in the same age and league (not to mention that Castro moved to AA and raised his OPS).

Baez has more power than Castro had at that age, but he also has even less plate discipline, with a walk rate of 4.4% (to Castro’s 5.7% at the same age).  Baez did have a higher fielding percentage than Castro at that age (.950 to .937) but again, Castro’s range factor shines (4.86 outs per game to 4.31 for Baez).  It’s possible that Javier Baez will turn into Starlin Castro.  But what will Starlin Castro turn into?  One more graph:

A 691 29 12 14 36 283 323 430 105
B 551 34 4 14 16 297 320 458 106

Player A is Starlin Castro in 2012.  Player B is Robinson Cano in 2005, as a 22 year old rookie.  So, is it possible that Castro turns into Robinson Cano?

Cub fans seem to forget how accomplished Castro is at such a young age, because he’s already been around for so long.  But suppose Javier Baez turns into Starlin Castro, and Castro turns into Robinson Cano.  I’d rather have two infielders who can hit like corner outfielders, and then go find another corner outfielder, or hope the pipeline develops one.