Thursday, August 18th, 2011
You can hardly watch a national broadcast of a Cubs game without the incessant droning on about how Starlin Castro needs to tighten up his defense. For the Saturday Fox broadcast (Buck & McCarver) I think that’s the entirety of their scouting report on him. The ESPN Sunday Night team isn’t quite as bad, especially since after their montage of Castro’s most recent errors they then admit that he’s likely to become a better defender as he matures. Oh yeah, he’s 21 years old.
The Cubs are 16-24 when Castro registers an error. If Castro commits an error (even if it leads to a run) and the Cubs win, who cares? No harm, no foul.
Of those 24 losses, 6 times we’ve been shutout. You can’t win if you don’t score, so what difference does it make if while being shutout Castro commits an error – or if his error leads to a run – we were going to lose anyway.
In 9 other losses the final score was a blowout (the Cubs lost by at least 5 runs). Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS notwithstanding, it’s basically impossible to have an error be the lone reason for such a blowout.
There are nine remaining losses of the original 24. Let’s deal with the easy ones first:
On May 11, 2010; May 26, 2010; June 26, 2010; and June 22, 2011 – in all four games Castro’s error did NOT lead to a run.
On May 10, 2010 he made three errors that led directly to one total run; the final score was 4-2. On April 24, 2011 he made one error that led directly to one run; the final score was 7-3. On June 15, 2011 he made one error that led directly to one run; the final score was 9-5. Maybe the first game ends differently, but the other two probably don’t.
That leaves only two games. The first was on June 10, 2010 – the Cubs had taken a 4-3 lead in Milwaukee, Castro’s sixth inning error tied the game at 4 and the Brewers went on to win in the 11th. The second was on April 25, 2011 – Castro made three errors in the same inning and the Cubs went from up 3-0 at Wrigley to a tie with the Rockies at 3-3; all the runs resulting directly from Castro’s errors. The Cubs lost that game 5-3.
After nearly 250 games played, only 3 losses could be traced back to a Castro error. I’ll take that. He’s sometimes spectacular, other times he struggles with the routine plays – and no, you don’t want your defense costing you ANY games. But when you consider that he’s 21 years old and at worst his defense has cost us three games, I fail to see what all the griping is about.
Pena To The Rescue?
It’s been suggested (most recently by VFTB poster Randy) that Castro is benefitting greatly from a quality first baseman. Of course, this is essentially impossible to prove. There is no stat to track errant throws that a first baseman has corralled and in doing so prevented an error. Castro has committed 23 fielding errors, and 22 throwing errors.
His throwing errors breakdown as follows: four to Derrek Lee at 1B, three to Xavier Nady at 1B, two to Blake DeWitt at 2B, two to Jeff Baker at 1B, and seven to Carlos Pena at 1B. He also had one each to Micah Hoffpauir (1B), Mike Fontenot (2B), Darwin Barney (2B), and DJ LeMahieu (1B). What does that tell us? Not much – Castro is an equal opportunity offender. Half the time he’s fielding the ball poorly, half the time he’s throwing it away.
Of course it’s easy to watch the game and say that Pena saves the entire Cubs infield from errors that they probably deserve, and Castro is likely at the top of that list. But it’s impossible to quantify – at least until there’s a stat for “wins above replacement player as a fielder based on errant throws.” Pena’s a great first baseman, but so was Derrek Lee – and it’s not terribly fair to compare them to Baker, Nady, Hoffpauir, or LeMahieu since no one would argue that any of those guys is even an “average” MLB first baseman, especially defensively. The whole infield is better with Lee or Pena at first; to single out Castro as the primary beneficiary is to ignore that those other guys aren’t even adequate as first basemen.
But it’s certainly not as if Castro’s errors peak when the better defenders are on the bench (and even if you COULD prove that, you’d also have to allow for the possibility that Castro could be more relaxed throwing to a competent first baseman than he is throwing to some minor league backup or fill-in utility player – another valid argument which could apply to the entire infield).
Also missing in the Castro revile is any accounting whatsoever for the hits he’s saving for our pitchers. Even if one first baseman is routinely making Castro look good (which is actually part of the first baseman’s job!), Castro routinely makes our pitchers look good by stealing balls ticketed for the outfield.
If there is a pattern, at least a loose pattern, it’s that Castro’s errors come in bunches. He’s had 5 errors in four days, 3 errors in five days, 5 errors in six days, and 4 errors in three days all at different points. That’s 17 of his 47 errors coming closely bunched together (thanks in part to two horrendous 3-error games).
This is probably the reason that baseball announcers at large (Len Kasper and Bob Brenly are not exempt) have an ongoing narrative that Castro’s fielding is mostly poor on the routine plays. That is a narrative that caught on early when Castro had 5 errors by the end of his 5th major league game (including a 3 error debut at Wrigley). Unfortunately for Starlin, he’s had enough similar stretches to guarantee that the myth will continue.
Since June 23rd he’s had exactly 4 errors in four different games. That’s almost two months of baseball and the Cubs won three of those four games!
The Historical Comparison
Castro wouldn’t be the only young SS to start his career with a bunch of errors and eventually figure it out as he matured (I’ve specifically picked players who started young and managed to play full seasons early in their career). Castro had 27 errors last year, he’s got 20 so far this year:
- Cal Ripken Jr. – as a 22-24 year old he registered 25, 26, and 26 errors. He was a rookie at 21.
- Ernie Banks – as a 23-27 year old he registered 34, 22, 25, 14, and 32 errors. He was a rookie at 23.
- Hanley Ramirez – as a 22-24 year old he registered 26, 24, and 22 errors. He was a rookie at 22.
- Robin Yount – as a 19-24 year old he registered 44, 31, 26, 30, 25 and 28 errors. He was a rookie at 18.
There are others to whom Castro would not compare nearly as favorably, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra both started their careers as very good defenders. And there are others to whom the comparison would be unfair, such as Derek Jeter whose range is generously described as mediocre (which in part explains his low error totals).
Why Does It Even Matter?
Maybe I should’ve started with this – even if Castro’s defense was as hideous as some have suggested, it’s not as if there’s a direct impact on the standings. This team is terrible; it’s going to be terrible whether Castro makes 3 errors or 33 errors. I’d much rather let Castro learn on the job with a crappy team, than suffer in the minors because there is some belief that his defense is inadequate. We’ve all too often left guys in the minors because of perceived shortcomings – or even sent them back down to let them learn another position. Now is the perfect time for the Cubs to have a young, supremely talented shortstop who possesses a correctable “deficiency.”
The organization is partly to blame – when your manager complains about a first inning pop-up that was bungled by your shortstop instead of focusing on the fact that the pitching was deplorable in a 9-1 loss, it kind of sets the tone for writers and analysts. If the manager is ripping him, there must be something to it, right? Uh, no…there’s not. Castro didn’t cost us that game, and his errors have largely been irrelevant to the final score.
One final point – the Cubs have a TON of problems on the field and in the front office at this point. There’s no need to create another one, especially when there is no viable solution. Hak-Ju Lee’s departure in the Matt Garza trade left the minor league system void of anyone who MIGHT be a better defender at SS than Castro already has proven himself to be. Until Castro hits for more power, he seems ill-suited for a corner infield position. And I really hope that signing a free agent SS isn’t part of the plan for the off-season; but obviously with Hendry all things are possible, however improbable or ill-advised it might seem.
Lacking any other option, it seems foolish to suggest that the Cubs should do anything with Castro except run him out there every day to the same position and keep a watchful eye. If the defense doesn’t improve or gets worse, there might be reason for concern – in another 18 months. But the sample size is far too small, the player is far too young, and the Cubs are flush with too many other issues to worry about the one great thing they have going now.
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