It May be Time for Joe Maddon to Change Up Starlin Castro’s Routine
As a long-time Starlin Castro apologist, I’ve been happy to stand up for the young shortstop throughout the course of his career. And I’ll gladly continue to disagree with the most ardent of his detractors, I just won’t be as much of a honk moving forward. After all, it’s a lot harder to reach the horn when you’ve given over the wheel to someone else.
It was only a little over a month ago that I had written an I-told-you-so piece about how Castro had elevated his performance in the face of increased competition and expectations. I followed that by discussing the rarefied air into which his hit total places him. But it’s looking more and more as though Starlin is heading back down from the mountaintop.
You could argue, of course, that it’s still far too early in the season to make any pronouncements about Castro’s performance, let alone his career. And you might be right. You’d probably be right. But I was seeing signs earlier this month indicating the alarming issues underpinning the more visible statistics Starlin had been posting.
And I wasn’t alone either; Bleacher Nation’s Michael Cerami had come to many of the same conclusions only two days earlier and BP Wrigleyville’s Mauricio Rubio reiterated and built upon them earlier this week. So either we’ve formed a nice little tinfoil hat society here or there’s really an issue. And it could be big. Like, chemtrails and Bilderberg big.
As I said earlier, I’m not ready to jump completely off of the #13 bus at this point, I’m just not going to be able to keep driving it for much longer. Given the circuitous route and the number of stops, I question whether I can keep it up. I’m not Batman, you know. But people keep ringing the bell as Castro’s offensive foundation erodes.
This would all be so much easier if Castro himself was doing well with the bat, man. Or if he was robbin’ guys in the field, which he had been doing early in the season. But alas, the riddle of Castro’s inconsistent defense continues to be a puzzler. It’s baffling, the way he seems to have two faces out there at times.
One moment, you’ll see him make a fantastic diving play on a ball he has no business reaching, planting and throwing the runner out at first. Then then next, the joker will stand there frozen while a routine grounder completely handcuffs him. Last night’s two-error fiasco was a perfect example of that maddening latter tendency.
Through the first 26 games of the season, Castro had committed four errors in 132 chances, good for a .970 fielding percentage. In the 20 games and 97 chances since then, he’s booted 7 balls, giving him an abysmal .918 figure. In total, he now ranks 19th among qualified shortstops with a .952 mark. But hey, at least he’s been than Jean Segura, amirite?
But FP is kind of an antiquated stat, so perhaps we should look at something a bit more sabr-y. To that end, I turn to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which attempts to quantify how many runs a player has saved or lost with his glove. Castro’s UZR right now sits at -2.1, good for 20th in baseball, which means he has actually cost the Cubs a couple of runs on defense.
And let’s take it just one step further to include UZR/150, which is the same metric but scaled to a 150-game basis in order to compare players with different amounts of playing time, or the same player across different seasons. Castro’s -5.5 UZR/150 is his worst since a -7.5 in 2011, but (silver lining!) is only 17th in MLB at this point in the season.
If it makes you feel any better, only 12 shortstops can actually boast a positive UZR/150 right now, though seven of those are on pace to save at least 11 runs with their respective gloves. Asdrubal Cabrera has posted a filthy 22.3 total thus far, for what it’s worth.
So is it time for us to go all Pontius Pilate on Starlin Castro, washing our hands of him and just letting the rabid masses have their way? Hardly. But I also think it’s time we start taking a hard look at exactly who he is and what his place on this Cubs team — if he’s to have one — is going to be.
As I said above, Castro seems to be a guy who has a hard time coping with mundanity. And Joe Maddon seems to be a guy who relishes the ability to move things around in order to break the status quo and keep the game and its rigors from wearing his team down. My thought is that it’s maybe about time these two concepts came to a head.
Perhaps swapping Castro and Addison Russell in the batting order, or at least moving the former down into the 9-hole, would be the shock to the system that gets the Cubs shortstop to stop short the next time he tries to pull an outside pitch. Or maybe it simply lights a fire under his ass. Either way, it can’t hurt.
Then again, maybe it’s a more drastic — and permanent — shift that needs to occur. I’ve long touted Castro’s ability to play shortstop at a major league level, but that premise has always been based upon the spectacular plays he’s capable of making. But in that, he’s a bit like another maligned Chicago athlete, Jay Cutler. At some point, you have to discard potential in favor of reality.
And that’s where I am with Starlin at this point. I’m not saying that he’s not capable of being a very good baseball player, just that I have given myself fully over to the notion that he’s not the shortstop. That was harder to do before this year, when a 21-year-old kid showed up and started hitting opposite-field doubles and snagging just about everything that came his way.
Yes, Russell has made some mistakes, though most of those appear to my untrained eye to have come as the result of having to turn double plays while looking in a mirror, so to speak. The advanced stats tell us that he’s already one of the best defensive second basemen in the majors, and that’s as a kid learning the ropes of both the league and the position.
Despite being called up in late April, Russell already ranks fifth at his position with a 2.8 UZR and is third overall with a UZR/150 of 16.8. I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb here — or, if I am, it’s at least a very sturdy one — in saying that the kid could probably transition back over to short with relative ease.
Joe Maddon’s job at this point is to squeeze the most he possibly can from the team he’s been given. That’s why he flips Dexter Fowler back the cleanup spot and changes the order based on the handedness of an opposing pitcher or the “aha” moment he has while binge-watching The Office in the clubhouse.
I know many of you probably fancy me a baseball genius and you’re baffled as to how I’m not yet on the Cubs’ payroll. But shocking as it may be, they’ve not asked for my opinion on any baseball-related matters to this point. Soon though, I’m sure. In all seriousness though, I can’t pretend to know nearly as much about the game and this team than what Maddon has forgotten.
That said, I am coming to believe that it’s in the best interest of this team and of the individual players involved that something has got to change with Starlin Castro. And if he’s unable to make the adjustments on his own, something might have to be done to jolt him a bit. Because when you get down to it, this game is all about doing everything you can to field the best possible team.
Just looking at the WAR totals for the two middle infielders I’ve discussed is far too simplistic a method to be applicable in any legitimate analysis, but that’s not going to stop me from doing so anyway. Consider that Castro has cost the Cubs .2 wins and Russell has given them .8. If my maths are correct, that’s — stops typing to count fingers — exactly one game.
If the season were to end today, the Cubs would miss the playoffs by — say it with me — exactly one game. But the season doesn’t end today and, as I said, that specific application of WAR would be incredibly irresponsible were it the basis for my thoughts here. But the thing about WAR is that it’s cumulative and if both of these guys continue to trend as they have, the gap will widen.
Regardless of how you feel about Starlin Castro and his future, I believe it’s in the team’s best interest to move him over to 2nd base posthaste. In the worst-case scenario, his slump continues unabated but is mitigated by a lower-leverage position both in the order and on the field. In the best-case, the move wakes him up and his value increases to the team, whether as a member of the roster or as trade bait.
And I’m not even going to touch the topic of the possibility of Javier Baez making another push to join the club and what that means for even more potential moves. Shoot, I just did it; nice work, Pandora. Well, I’m already well over 1,500 words so that’s a topic for another day or maybe for the comments.
Does anyone else think I’m onto something here, or am I just way off (2nd) base? I want to love Starlin, I really do, but I’m settling into the notion that the only way I can continue to do so wholeheartedly is to see some wholesale changes made with him. Until then, I’m going to take a little break from driving.
Now, if one of you wouldn’t mind taking the wheel…