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Deconstructing the Development of Starlin Castro

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

This year has been a lot of the same old-same old for Starlin Castro and Cubs fans are quick to defend him with a plethora of excuses; while many are justifiable, he’s now accumulated nearly 2100 plate appearances and logged over 4200 innings at shortstop. At this point there should be some substantial improvements on the field but is he developing the way we all hope?

In this article I am going to re-evaluate Castro’s tools and potential using the standard 20-80 scouting scale alongside Castro’s previous potential.

 

Hit for Contact

Castro’s best tool has been his ability to make contact with nearly any pitch. A career .295 hitter, he’s always been able to carry a high batting average. His quick hands and short swing allow him to put the bat on the ball at an extremely proficient clip… and he uses that swing often.

For his career, Castro swings at nearly half the pitches he sees and he makes contact at a whopping 84.1% of the pitches he does swing at. He’s always hacked too much at pitches outside of the zone, but a scary trend has developed over his career – he’s starting to swing more and more at pitches out of the zone while making less contact overall at the pitches he’s seeing. As this trend developed his batting average has fallen and is currently sitting in the low .270s but his K% has remained relatively the same around the 14% area.


Castro showing his sweet swing on a 2-1 count to blast a walk off double.

This trend is especially worrisome with a hitter like Castro who’s success at the plate has been completely dependent on his batting average. Right now he’s still an above average contact hitter, but if this trend continues, his offensive ceiling would take a huge hit if his contact skills cannot carry him to a high batting average due to his complete lack of plate discipline.

I used to peg Castro as a .300-.330 hitter over his career, depending on the year, but now I’ve downgraded him to a .280-.310 hitter, a notch below where I originally projected him. Right now I’m definitely worried about these trends but I’m still leaning toward the optimistic side that a player with that much ability will figure it out.

Hit for Power

This is the one area that Castro has developed at a nice pace. His Isolated Power (ISO%) per year has increased along with his HR totals. While his doubles did drop last year compared to the previous season, I think that was an outlier more than anything substantial, and this season he already has 10 doubles only a fourth of the way through the season. It’s too early right now to worry about the dip in SLG & ISO you can chalk that up to a number of uncontrollable factors, like the bad weather all of baseball has had to contend with.

As long as Castro’s contact abilities do not decline, there’s no reason not to think Castro is going to be a 20-homer guy every year, possibly starting this year.

Plate Discipline

Obviously, this is Starlin’s biggest weakness and he has made zero progress in this regard. You could make a legitimate argument that he’s actually regressed in this department. This season it has looked like he’s making a conscious to take pitches (and that shows in his pitches per plate appearance) but in that effort, Castro goes up to the plate and just takes a pitch to take a pitch. I never expect him to be an on-base machine, but he does need to lay off pitches that will almost certainly will produce an easy out.

At this point, he still has little-to-no idea how to work the count in his favor and his ability to make contact on nearly any pitch has led to his over-aggressiveness at the plate increasing his K% to a career high while dropping his BB% and OBP% to a career lows.


An all too familiar sight recently, Starlin Castro going well out of the zone to get himself out.

You can live with a guy who only walks 5% of the time if he’s hitting around .300, but if he’s hitting in the .270s and only walking 5%, that’s a below .320 OBP over the course of a season- a serious problem for any starter.

Baserunning Ability

Castro, like all homegrown Cubs talent in recent years, lacks the basic baserunning knowledge that most teams instill in their young players. At the moment, he has enough speed to swipe 25-30 stolen bases a year, but he’s also caught stealing nearly 40% of the time negating most of that benefit. His poor decisions and mind lapses on the bases also outweigh his above average speed.

Two new metrics I included are Stolen Bases and Caught Stealing runs above average (wSB) which compares him to an average runner (0.0) and Ultimate Base Running (UBR) in runs above average which only monitors his baserunning in non-steal situations against average runners. Both stats back up what my eye test tells me, he’s an average at best baserunner and a below average base stealer. I expect as he continues to fill out he’ll lose some of those stolen bases, but hopefully with better coaching and more experience he will cut down on the blunders as well.

Defense

Defensively, Castro is improving even though you can’t tell by the error numbers. He still has above average range, a solid glove and a strong arm, plus all the work on his throwing mechanics seems to be paying off with his throwing errors being cut in half last year (working with another excellent defensive first baseman in Anthony Rizzo helps too). Like his baserunning, where Castro gets in trouble is when he loses focus or tries to do too much.


Castro flashing his amazing range and hand eye coordination to snare a would-be bloop single. Plays like this show Castro’s potential at Shortstop, his range is matched by only a handful of players in all of baseball right now.

While his excellent range, makes up for a lot of the errors, he’s still a fringy fielder right now, and if he slows down and doesn’t keep his head in the game, he could be moving to 2B in the future. I’m still willing to bet experience and maturity will help him defensively but the Cubs are going to need to make a decision on his position in the next year or two so they know where their holes are going to be in the free agent and trade markets.

Conclusion

I think we have a good idea what Castro is going to be in the future, and that’s not the superstar we all hoped for and even expected. The alarming trends with his plate discipline, cause his offensive potential to be downgraded from his previous ceiling when he was coming up as a prospect. I never expect him to lead the league in walks but working the count into his favor, and laying off pitcher’s pitches , are two skills he still hasn’t developed. He’s been labeled a bad ball hitter, and while that is a nice skill to have, he’s not going to realize his potential without developing a strike zone and adhering to it. He’s still going to be a valuable position player at a premium position who will have a couple of great years due to his raw talent but without a significant overhaul in his approach at the plate he’s going to be more average than superstar.

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An Interview with ESPN’s Keith Law

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Keith Law writes for ESPN providing analysis on all baseball topics.  He also writes about food, literature, and other subjects on his personal blog, The Dish.  You can follow Keith on twitter, @keithlaw. I think he’s a must follow for any baseball fan.  I’d also like to thank Keith for taking the time to do the interview with such a busy schedule.

Q: Since the regime change last winter, many baseball experts have said the Cubs have really smart guys running things and fans just need to be patient.  On the other hand, looking at Boston this year, you can make a legitimate case Epstein’s moves put the Red Sox in the predicament they were in before the Dodgers bailed them out.  What is your overall impression of the Cubs new front office? What do they do right? And why should Cubs fans be patient instead of skeptical?

I think they’re absolutely headed in the right direction, including spending money on Soler ahead of the implementation of the new CBA, going after higher-probability players in the draft without significantly sacrificing ceiling, and giving opportunities to potentially undervalued players like Bryan LaHair (even if that didn’t work out).

I don’t see why Cubs fans would be skeptical, though. What has the regime done so far to merit that skepticism? I also think that if you’re going to debit Epstein for the free agent disasters in Boston, you also need to credit Hoyer and McLeod for building the majors’ best farm system in San Diego.

Q: The new CBA was a total game changer especially for the Cubs who were just starting to exploit the old system’s market inefficiencies.  Except spending more than other teams on their 25-man roster, how can the team still use their financial advantage?

I’d expect them to be more active with players coming from NPB or KBO [Japan and Korea], since those players aren’t subject to the CBA’s limits on international players. I also think their financial advantage allows them to make moves where they take on a bad contract to get a player or prospect they really want – in effect, buying talent through an indirect route.

Q: Speaking of market inefficiencies, I recently published a study on the success rates of first round draft picks from 1990-2006. Overall, teams averaged ~30% success rate on their first round picks. However, the teams employing Tim Wilken were at 57%.  I’m a little disappointed the Cubs moved Wilken out of the Scouting Director position as he’s been so successful for such a long period of time. How do you feel about Wilken’s first round picks since joining the Cubs? Do you know anything about his new role with the team? What can you tell us about his replacement Jaron Madison?

I’ve known Tim for ages and have a ton of respect for him as an evaluator and a director – but I think your method is a little simplistic, primarily since first-round picks are almost never a unilateral decision by a scouting director. Almora was a group decision that included everyone we’ve discussed so far here, as well as other evaluators with the Cubs. My understanding is that Tim will still see potential selections for the team’s top picks, but it sounds like he’ll also be used more on the pro side, seeing possible trade targets and evaluating the Cubs’ own prospects, which is a great use of his abilities.

Q: What are your thoughts on Starlin Castro’s development and his recent extension?

Love the extension – the downside is extremely limited, so even if he doesn’t become the kind of star I expect him to become, it’s still a reasonable deal for the team. I’d like to see more improvement in his approach at the plate – more walks would be great, but I’d settle for better at bats – but I also think it’s going to take time for the new regime to implement that philosophy in the Cubs’ system. Plate discipline wasn’t a priority under Jim Hendry, and it’s a hard enough thing to teach even when it is a priority, so I’d expect it to take a few years before we’ll see an effect up and down the system.

Q: When teams call up their top prospects, they normally want to give them a lot of playing time. Josh Vitters on the other hand is being platooned with Luis Valbuena.  Why is that the case in this situation?  What’s Vitters future moving forward?

I don’t see a future there. He’s long had one of my favorite swings in the minors, but his approach is all but nonexistent, and I don’t see how he’ll ever hit enough to make that swing (and the power it could provide) matter in the majors. If he had Matt Dominguez’ glove, it’d be a different story, but Vitters is at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

Q: Can you tell us about the Cubs prospects you do like & when can we expect to see these guys at Wrigley?  

I’m going to defer that till I do my prospect coverage this offseason. There will be plenty of Cubs content in there. I’ll also see Javier Baez a bit in the AFL, so I’ll be writing about him more in October. I’m a big fan.

Q: On the 20-80 scale, how do you rate Matt Szczur’s present and future tools? You’ve been pretty critical of Szczur and his “short, slappy swing” saying unless that changes he will not produce any power at the majors.  What kind of chance does he have at being an everyday lead-off hitter type that brings value by getting on base, using his speed on the bases and playing defense despite a lack of power?

I don’t see him as an everyday player. He doesn’t have the kind of patience to be the player you describe, nor is he a 70 or 80 runner. I think he’s been overrated because of the bone marrow transplant story (which is an amazing thing, just not relevant to his future as a player) and because Cubs fans didn’t have better prospects to whom they could pin their hopes. Now you have Baez, Almora, Soler, Paniagua … players worth getting excited over. The Vitters and the Szczurs will get less attention as a result.

Q:  Some fans bring up Prince Fielder when talking about Dan Vogelbach’s chance to play first base.  I’ve always thought of Fielder as pretty agile for a such big guy which makes him a unique case.  Other than being fat guys who hit for a ton of power, are there any other similarities between the two? Is there any chance Vogelbach plays first base at the major league level?

Fielder’s a much better athlete than Vogelbach, even light on his feet considering his size, and Fielder’s not even a good first baseman. I can’t see Vogelbach playing any position but DH in the majors. He’s a one tool guy.

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Wake Me Up When September Ends

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Many fans and players believe in outside forces that affect a team.  Be it luck, the baseball gods, or an almighty curse, some things just defy logic.  The past 2 seasons the Cubs were in prime position to get a top draft pick then inexplicably performed better to finish each season.  On July 30th of last year the Cubs were 42-65 (.393) and lined up for the second draft pick.  They finished the year 29-26 (.527) and ended up with the sixth pick.  In 2010 the team was 50-73 (.407) on August 20th for the 5th worst record. They finished the year 25-14 (.641) and ended up with the 9th pick.  It’s been frustrating watching the team be terrible most of the year and then turn it around at the worst possible time.  This year I’ve worried about the same thing.

On September 6th the team was 5 games ahead of Colorado for the second pick in next year’s draft.   Since then the Cubs went 7-4 and have slipped to a half game lead over Colorado.  Dropping one spot wouldn’t be terrible but we’re also now only 3 games ahead of Cleveland and Minnesota.

Looking at the remaining schedules, the Cubs seem to have the easiest.  Each team has two series at home and two on the road.  The Cubs get the Cards at home – who they always play tough despite the standings;  head to Coors in a pivotal series for draft positioning; the team then travels to Arizona who are still clinging on to playoff hopes; and finish the season at home against Houston, who has only won 16 games on the road all year.   The Rockies schedule isn’t all that much tougher only facing one team over .500 – the Dodgers – but they do face Arizona for 7 games who are not out of the playoff picture just yet.  Colorado also has one more game than the other 3 teams and it’s at home.  The Indians have the most balanced schedule facing the 9th best and 8th worst teams in baseball twice each.  The Twins on the other hand have a brutal schedule with 9 of their remaining 12 games against teams fighting for their playoff lives.

If the Cubs over-perform the final weeks of the season, it could easily knock us down to 5th in next year’s draft.  But does that really matter?  In the 2011 draft we ended up with Javier Baez at 9th and he is now our top prospect, and should be in – or pretty damn close – to the top 25 prospects lists beginning next year.  This year we took Albert Almora 6th, and after the draft the Cubs claimed he was #1 on their draft board anyway.  This is supported a bit by the Cubs passing on Mark Appel who was seen as the best player going into the draft.   Those picks look pretty good right now despite the Cubs late season success.

If you looked at my study on the Success Rates of MLB Draft Picks by Slot, you would know that it’s extremely important to be in the top 5 for rebuilding teams.  It’s the smartest way to turn around a ball club.  The Cubs are all but locked in there.  Within the top 5, other than being number one overall, the results are pretty similar 2-4, with number 5 falling off a bit.  Since the Cubs have relatively no chance to catch Houston for the first pick and are locked in to the top 5, statistically speaking, I have no problem with them finishing out the season as strong as possible.  While I am less-than-thrilled about their recent and the potential to close the year with a pick worse than #2, I’d rather not have to root against the team.  And  If there are baseball gods, then don’t the Cubs deserve to be rewarded (again?) for playing hard the whole year.

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Jeff Samardzija: Ace in the Making

Monday, September 10th, 2012

On April 8th Jeff Samardzija reintroduced himself to the world. He pitched 8.2 innings, giving up only one earned run on a solo shot in the 9th, allowed 4 base runners in total while striking out 8, and dismissed all concerns that his Spring Training was just a fluke. Five months later he finished off the best season of his young career with a complete game, allowing 5 base runners, 2 earned runs and struck out 9 Pirates as the Cubs decided to shut him down with 3-plus weeks to go. From an outside perspective, a 3.81 ERA, 3.57 FIP, and 3.5 WAR in 174.2 innings pitched is along the lines of a solid mid-rotation starter. It’s a good season but not great; however, the stats don’t tell the whole story.

The knock on Samardzija until this year was his results never matched his stuff. Most importantly, he lacked a strike out pitch despite his overpowering velocity. His fastball was too straight to accrue swings and misses, so throughout his minors career he attempted to develop new pitches to find that elusive out pitch. When Samardzija was first called up, he relied on 3 pitches: a 4-seam fastball, slider, and changeup combination. In 2009, he added a cutter and started experimenting with a curveball; and then in 2011 he added a two-seam fastball. The new pitches added to his repertoire but he never found the out pitch he was looking for, until this year.

During the offseason, Samardzija developed a split-finger fastball which has quickly turned into one of the best in baseball. He only used the split finger about 17% of the time; however, it resulted in an astounding 48% of his strikeouts and batters hit a measly .128 against his split-finger with only 7 extra base hits. The addition of the split-finger immediately made Samardzija a solid option in the starting rotation; but he was not done tinkering with his arsenal. During the month of June, Jeff tried to utilize his curveball instead of his slider with disastrous results.

During the 3 starts where he scrapped his slider in favor of the curve, Jeff gave up 17 ER in only 14.2 IP. In July, when he went back to using his slider as his 3rd pitch, his results returned to his form before the curveball experiment. If you remove the 3 starts where he experimented with a curveball his numbers look outstanding:

In fact, if you compare his 25 starts without the curveball to the seasons of the top 10 NL pitchers according to FanGraph’s WAR, Samardzija’s stats are comparable:

As you can see Shark’s season – sans curveball experiment – was among the best pitchers in the NL. Moving forward you would assume he will stop trying to add the curveball and focus on the 5 pitch combination he had great success with in 2012. Even though Samardzija has had an up and down career, I feel very confident he’s turned the corner and should be projected as a front-line starter for the foreseeable future. I would let Samardzija go through arbitration this season, then if he does maintain his performance in 2013, look to extend him 4-5 years buying out 2-3 years of free agency and keep him under control for his age 28-32 seasons.

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An Interview with Jim Callis of Baseball America

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Jim Callis is the Executive Editor at Baseball America and you can follow him on twitter @JimCallisBA. In my opinion, he’s one of the most knowledgeable and more approachable guys in the industry and I enjoyed getting the opportunity to get inside of his head for a while.

Q: Hi Jim, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule. What exactly does your job with BA entail?

A: I work out of my home rather than in our main office, so I’m not as involved with day-to-day issues. My biggest responsibilities are headlining our draft coverage and overseeing all of our prospect rankings, including being the primary editor on our annual Prospect Handbook. I write a weekly Ask BA column where I answer reader questions, and do a weekly chat as well. I also write a draft/prospects-related column in ever issue of the magazine.

Q: What is your off-season schedule like?

A: Our offseason is busier than most people realize. From October through December, I spend nearly every waking hour editing the Prospect Handbook, which contains 900 detailed scouting reports and plenty more. After that goes to print, I write our Early Draft Preview and then start preparing for the draft in the spring.

Q: What do you look for when you are scouting a prospect?

A: I’d consider myself more of an analyst than a scout. A lot of our information comes from talking to scouts, not going out with a radar gun and stopwatch and seeing games on a daily basis. I look for a combination of tools and performance, with performance mattering more as you get closer to the major leagues. I could give you thousands of words on this subject, but the short answer is power and speed for hitters and arm strength and command for pitchers from a tools standpoint, and ability to make consistent hard contact for hitters or miss bats for pitchers from a performance standpoint.

Q: It’s been reported that the Cubs previous regime was well behind modern front offices. How has the new front office changed scouting and player development within the organization?

A: I can’t quote specific philosophies or practices, but the obvious answer is that they’ve made sweeping changes. Jason McLeod oversees the entire scouting and player development operation and vice president of Oneri Fleita is gone. Former scouting director Tim Wilken has been promoted to special assistant, with Jaron Madison taking over as director. Joe Boehringer was hired to fill the new position of pro scouting director. Those are the most significant changes.

Q: I’m a little disappointed the Cubs moved Tim Wilken out of the Scouting Director position as he’s been so successful for such a long period of time. How do you feel about Wilken’s first round picks since joining the Cubs? Do you know anything about his new role with the team? And what can you tell us about his replacement Jaron Madison?

A: Wilken’s first-round picks were, in order, Tyler Colvin, Josh Vitters, Andrew Cashner, Brett Jackson, Hayden Simpson, Javier Baez and Albert Almora. Colvin has gotten back on track since being traded to Colorado, and I could see Andrew Cashner eventually emerging as a closer in San Diego. I don’t see Vitters as a big league regular on a contender, and Simpson has been a disaster. I do like Jackson, despite the increased strikeouts this year, and think he can be a solid regular. Baez and Almora are the two best prospects in the system. In his new role, Wilken still will contribute to the draft, but he’ll also contribute in other areas as well, such as major league and international decisions. Madison was the scouting director for the last three years with the Padres, and had some promising drafts to help rebuild the system. He was hired by Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod in San Diego.

Q: Right now, who do you think are the Cubs top 5 prospects?

A: In order: Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Arodys Vizcaino, Christian Villanueva.

Q: Age relative to league is very important when evaluating prospects. After seeing Jeff Samardzija break out this year after being all but written off, should two-sport college athletes be given more leniency when being evaluated?

A: Yes, they should. Age relative to league is important, but so is “baseball age,” i.e. how long the player has focused on baseball. With Samardzija, though, the toughest thing to reconcile always was his overpowering velocity and relatively low strikeout rates in the minors. He just didn’t miss as many bats as he should, and he didn’t at Notre Dame either. The Cubs have done a nice job developing him, and the finished major league product is a different story.

Q: Speaking of two-sport college athletes, Matt Szczur had a roller coaster season which saw him finish the year struggling at AA-Tennessee. You’ve always been pretty high on Szczur. What are your thoughts now that you’ve had another season to evaluate him?

A: I still like him but I’ve also cooled a little on him. I still think he can be a big league regular, though he might have a hard time keeping the center-field job away from Albert Almora. Szczur is fast but not a blazer, and he can hit but doesn’t have a ton of power.

Q: The Cubs have recently signed Juan Carlos Paniagua for 1.5 million. This is the third time Paniagua has signed with a club but only the first time it was approved after he used an assumed identity and fraudulent identification papers in his first two attempts. His listed date of birth is still unconfirmed by the MLB. Is this something that could come back to bite the Cubs later? What can you tell us about Paniagua’s pitching ability and where would you guess he fits in the Cubs top prospects?

A: It can’t come back to bite the Cubs in terms of having this deal voided. They know his birth date is unconfirmed and made the decision to sign him anyway. He has a tremendous arm, clocked up to 98 mph with his fastball and backing it up with a hard slider. I think he’ll fit in the 6-10 range when I do our Cubs Top 30 Prospects list in the offseason, but I don’t have a great feel for him yet.

Q: Josh Vitters had a mini-break out at AAA this season but he’s really struggled since being called up to the majors. The swing is still there but so are the defensive, plate patience and work ethic concerns. What are realistic expectations for the former #3 overall pick moving forward?

A: He has been tough to figure out, because he’s always been young for his league and made some progress here and there. I just don’t see him as a regular on a contender. I think he can hit for a solid average, but I don’t think the power and defense profile well enough at third base. I could see him hitting .275 with 15 or so homers, not a lot of walks and substandard defense if he played every day.

Q: It seems the only starting pitching prospects worth mentioning in the Cubs’ system have been recently acquired. Are there any holdovers from the Hendry days that Cubs fans should still be interested in?

A: I don’t see any Hendry holdovers that look like good bets to pitch in the front half of a big league rotation. The old regime had those hopes for Dillon Maples after signing him for $2.5 million next year, and maybe he’ll fulfill them, but he has barely been able to pitch this year. Robert Whitenack was making some encouraging progress before having Tommy John surgery last year. There are some lower-level guys like Starlin Peralta who are pretty far away. There’s not much in the way of upper-level pitching in the system.

Q: The Cubs drafted Albert Almora with their first round pick this year. I’ve been surprised by the amount of power he’s shown in limited playing time thus far. What are his current and potential tools on the 20-80 scale? How quickly should he move through the minors?

A: Almora has advanced instincts for a high school player, so he could move quickly than most. Projecting him down the road, he could have plus tools across the board. He handles the bat very well, could develop into a 20-homer guy as he fills out and he’s an above-average defender with a quality arm. His stopwatch speed is closer to average, but he plays above those times.

Q: It feels like Junior Lake has been around forever but hasn’t made much progress in developing all those tools. He had another solid yet unspectacular season statistically in 2012. What kind of future do you think he has with the Cubs? Is there any chance they try him out as a pitcher in the near future?

A: You described Lake well. He has one of the strongest infield arms in the minors, above-average raw power and speed to match once he gets going. The problem is he hasn’t been able to refine his tools into skills. He doesn’t control the strike zone, which holds him back at the plate, and he’s really too big to be a full-time shortstop. I don’t see him as a regular on a contender, but he could get a shot at third base in the near future if Vitters doesn’t work out. He’s showing enough as a position player that I don’t think the Cubs are going to try him on the mound anytime soon.

Q: Top 5 guys aside, if you had to bet your life on one guy being a successful big league player, who would it be?

A: I definitely wouldn’t want to bet my life. There aren’t a lot of upper-level guys, especially after all the promotions, to hang your hat on. Dan Vogelbach has had a great year, but he’s an all-bat first baseman, and those guys are typically boom or bust. If I’m betting my life, I’m picking Szczur, but he might be more of a Reed Johnson than a true regular. I do think he can hit and run and play defense well enough to have a long-term role in the majors.

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