Star of the Game – A.J. Burnett – .302 (WPA)
Ugh. What a dud. I looked forward to this game all afternoon – I got my work in at the gym early, did some chores, and settled down for a nice afternoon of Cubs baseball. Way to ruin my day, guys! At least I had the last day of the draft to obsess over.
Jeff Samardzija has dominated the Pirates in his career with a 0.84 ERA in 5 previous starts. So, you’re probably thinking that he’s going to go out and just crush them again, right? Wrong. Jeff floated everything up in the zone, and the Pirates’ hitters (yes, the Pirates’ hitters) teed off on him all afternoon. His splitter didn’t have the usual devastating downward dive – something was obviously off. I thought he was going to get back on track after he got a double play ground ball to get out of the second inning allowing only one run, but it just wasn’t his day. He wound up with a line of 6.0 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 7 SO, 1 BB.
Of course, it didn’t really matter how Shark pitched today, because the offense did absolutely nothing. The only Cub runs came on Soriano’s 2-run homerun with one out in the ninth (by the way, Soriano was due after a few near-misses in the last couple of games). A.J. Burnett was solid, going 8 1/3 innings and only allowing 4 hits (he did walk 3). I will say that the Cubs offense did run into quite a bit of bad luck. They had several line drive outs and were putting good wood on the ball for most of the game. Perhaps the hitter who had the worst luck – which came at the worst possible time for him – was Starlin Castro
So, let’s talk about the topic du jour – the struggles of the Cubs’ shortstop. Over his last 78 plate appearances coming into today’s game, Castro was hitting an atrocious .153/.218/.194 (his 0 for 3 today dropped his season average to .247). He’s taking fastballs right down the middle early in counts and swinging wildly at breaking balls outside the zone after he gets down in the count. Obviously, the Cubs coaching staff has tried to make adjustments to Castro’s approach and instill in him the “selectively aggressive” mindset that is part of the Cubs Way. [For the uninitiated, “selectively aggressive” essentially means that a hitter should look for pitches they can drive early in the count and lay off anything that isn’t what they’re looking for – it sounds simple, but it takes discipline and a great batting eye.] The idea with this method is to turn Castro into an all-around offensive force who has a high OBP in addition to getting tons of hits (and hopefully increasing the power numbers as well). Castro did walk more and hit more homeruns last year than in previous years, but he just hasn’t gotten on track this season in any regard. Some have speculated that he may have too many voices in his ear, and others have suggested that playing on a losing team is sinking his motivation and focus. Dale Sveum seems to think that mechanics are at least part of the issue. Sahadev Sharma did a great piece on this topic (I suggest you read it in its entirety) – http://www.csnchicago.com/cubs-talk/starlin-castro-battling-through-adversity-plate – and he quotes Sveum in the article:
“It’s an everyday battle right now,” Sveum said. “Whether it’s his mechanics are bad or it’s in the head. I’d like to see him back to where he was back in 2010 and 2011 when there was a lot less movement going on. He thinks they’re the same mechanics, but they’re not the same mechanics from when he came up to the big leagues or even 2011. It might look the same, but there’s way more movement when the pitch is being delivered.”
As JD pointed out during the telecast, these mechanical issues are something that have to be worked on over time in the batting cage before games. It’s not like you can tell a guy to stop doing something that’s developed into a habit and it will be fixed right away. If Castro is dedicated to getting better (there’s no reason to think he isn’t), and he maintains his motivation (which will have to be intrinsic, since he’s not playing for a contract), he should be able to make the necessary adjustments and get back to hitting the ball consistently. Today was the smallest of sample sizes, but he hit hard line drives all day. If he keeps that up, those line drives are going to eventually start falling for hits.
As for those that are calling for him to be traded immediately – he’s at his lowest possible value right now, so that makes no sense. Additionally, it’s not like there is a shortstop in the minor leagues pushing him for a spot. Javier Baez, if he even sticks at short (which I doubt) is still in class A ball and is at least 2 years away from the big leagues. I think it’s best that Castro goes through these struggles now in a “lost” season. After all, he’s only 23, and these sorts of struggles are bound to happen in a young player’s career. If he hasn’t put it together in a couple of years when the Cubs are ready to start competing, the team will have to look at other options. Until then, Viva Castro!