I really didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to backtrack on my support of Starlin Castro, so I brushed aside the idea that he was heading toward a cliff offensively. Then I watched helplessly as he pulled a Wile E. Coyote and sprinted straight out into midair, defying gravity just long enough to hold up a sign that read “Help!”
I know what many of you are thinking: “You’re crazy. The guy’s batting .296, so how could there possibly be any problems?” Well, you can’t see the hole in the ozone layer either, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In this case, it’s more about the holes in the Casto-zone Player, but the concept is the same.
To my untrained eye, it appears that he’s trying to pull the ball too often and has been rolling over and putting balls on the ground instead of smacking line drives. As a result, the latent power we all thought would emerge has remained dormant. I had to look at least three times to confirm this, but Castro has only 3 extra-base hits (1 double, 2 home runs) in 2015, none of which has come in the last 13 games.
I have to admit, that scared me a little. But maybe my fear was just a construct of the same paranoid mind that suggested a guy who’s hitting .297 and getting on base at a .444 clip needs to change his approach. While I still think Kris Bryant could be more aggressive on first-pitch strikes, I was hoping to find that my worries about Castro were unfounded.
In that endeavor, I have been greatly disappointed. Those among you who frequent Baseball Prospectus and other such goldmines to sift through untold volumes of statistical data may scoff at my rudimentary digging, but I think what I’ve got here will be amenable to stat geeks and casual fans alike.
I’ve heard it said that you may be the only Bible some people ever read, so, knowing that a lot of folks like books with pictures, I started getting tattoos. To that same end, I felt that images might better convey my research than words alone, so I’m going to be sharing several heatmaps gleaned from Brooks Baseball via Baseball Prospectus.
First, I wanted to take a wide-angle view of the situation by looking simply at the raw number of pitches Castro has seen. For the first series of charts, and all subsequent sets as well, I have shown Castro’s career results, then those from April 5th – 25th, and finally from April 26th – May 7th.
April 25th was the date of the rainout in Cincy that I sat through for 4 hours, so it provides a convenient line of demarcation for me personally. Aside from that, it also appears to be a date from which we can see some differences in Castro’s results. As always, the obvious small sample size caveats apply here.
When viewing the charts below, it’s important to note that they are set up relative to the catcher’s POV, which means that you should imagine Castro standing to the left side of your screen. I point that out because my own natural tendency is to view these as though I’m the pitcher.
The first thing you notice here is that pitchers are going at Starlin low and away in a very definitive pattern. For his career, each of the 9 squares to the bottom-right bear higher percentages of pitches than any of the other 16 on the map. As we move to the more recent maps, however, the trends are changing.
While pitchers are still primarily challenging Castro low and away, they’ve begun busting him inside as well. Just look at the jump in the square just below the knees on the inside; the numbers are small, but the percentage jumped significantly. And where we only saw blue inside off the plate early, now we’re getting some purple.
As April wound down, it looks as though pitchers were seeing that Castro was trying to turn on everything to pull, so they went heavily outside. The inside, below-the-knees pitch got more popular too, but just look at the six boxes from middle-away to down-away. That’s a lot of red.
A quick look at Castro’s hitting tendencies reveal that he is indeed trying to pull the ball, probably too much. He’s generally hovered at about a 35% pull rate, though last year saw him reach a career-high of 40.2%. This year, he’s pulling the ball 52.3% of the time, resulting in a sharp drop in hits up the middle (9.7% lower than 2014) and a slight drop in going oppo (2.3%).
Now that we’ve seen what pitchers are giving him and where he’s trying to go with it, let’s take a look at how Starlin is hitting the ball. He’s always been more of a ground ball hitter, but his line drive percentage has always hovered around 20. In a resurgent 2014, he reached a career-high 22.3% in that area.
The results this season, however, have been…well, they’ve not been good. Castro’s LD% is an abysmal 14.8, a trend that is pretty clear from the charts below.
This looks like Lake Michigan; all that blue is nice for a body of water, but is not a pretty sight in the least on a heatmap. But let’s not even bother with the line drives, casting these numbers aside with the confidence that a few solid hits will warm the map up in a hurry. Besides, as I said earlier, Castro’s always been more of a ground ball hitter. Below are those trends.
Okay, nice to see some red for a change, though it provides little reprieve for me. See, the earlier chart bears a lot of purple and almost reads like in inverted bell curve or a U-shape. Castro’s tendencies are clearly visible even without looking at the numbers. That’s in stark contrast to the scattershot nature of the 2015 maps.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the Cubs’ shortstop is playing a guessing game up there at the plate. Or, as has already been mentioned, he’s trying so hard to pull the ball that he’s simply rolling over and beating pitches into the ground. His ground ball percentage, up to 64.8% this year against a career average of 49.2%, certainly seems to tell us this is the case.
I don’t have fly ball maps included, as I felt it would simply belabor the point, but I do have one more incredibly depressing series of heatmaps to show you. ISO measures raw power, a hitter’s tendency to hit for extra bases. Castro’s no masher, but he’s got a fair bit of pop in his bat. Well, maybe had is a better term. Have a look.
I’m just glad I’m typing this and not presenting a live seminar, as I’d have just had to excuse myself after vomiting in my mouth. But now I’m all brushed and rinsed and ready to continue. From the all-time numbers, we can clearly see why pitchers throw Castro low and away; he’s got no power there.
But there’s a nice swath of red and purple cutting across from low and in to up and away, telling us that Castro can take advantage of mistakes. But so far in 2015, we’re seeing a markedly different set of maps. Those three red squares from the first weeks of the season stand alone in a sea of blue and have zero counterparts in the more recent portion of the season.
It would be one thing if Castro was pulling the ball with authority, and I don’t think I’d be worried if he was putting balls in the left field bleachers regularly. Trouble is, he’s not. At all. While his HR/fly ball percentage is up slightly (11.1% vs. 10.1% last year and 6.7% career), Castro’s overall fly ball percentage is down to 20.5% against last year’s 32.3% and a career 30.5% figure.
But wait, there’s more! Not only are his fly balls way down on the whole — driving his GB/FB ratio to a whopping 3.17 — but the number of them that don’t even reach the outfield grass is way up, from a 7.9% career average and 10.1% in 2014 to 33.3% this season. Below is my only non-heatmap image, a basic graph of his batted-ball type on the season.
Despite the fact that it’s tracking a disturbing trend, I had a little chuckle at the fact that the purple line illustrating pop-ups actually represents one. While there are some marginally encouraging results in the line drives and ground balls, the growing gap from pop-ups to good fly balls is an issue.
So what’s changed? I glanced briefly at the types of pitches being thrown his way but didn’t really see any trends that jumped off the page. Well, that’s not entirely true, I guess. Castro is seeing an increase in sliders, from a little less than 20% in his career to 25% in 2015. Since a slider from an RHP would break down and away from RHH, that could help to explain the shifts in the first series of heatmaps.
I had mentioned earlier that Castro is trying to pull the ball too much and that it’s resulting in him beating the ball into the ground. But it’s obvious that he’s also popping it up far more often, which means that he’s getting way under the ball.
He’s chasing more pitches too, as evidenced by a 37.7% O-Swing rate that’s more than 7 points higher than in 2014. But it’s not as though he’s just up there chasing pitches right out of the gate; Castro’s 3.82 pitches per place appearance is up from last year and the highest in his career since a 3.85 average in…2013.
Could it be that Castro is actually being too patient? I’d like to submit that that could be a part of the case. I’m going to lay some of the blame on an increased attempt to guide or aim his hits, something I have fallen prey to on many occasions, though with me it’s co-ed beer league softball.
Still, I think the concepts carry over a bit. As I wrote about Kris Bryant, when a batter is patient early there is a potential that he’ll be behind in the count and in a position to see fewer strikes as it gets deeper. Combine than with Castro’s desire to pull the ball and you’ve got a recipe for fewer and weaker hits.
It’s probably asking too much to think that he’ll ever be able to lay off that slider in the dirt, but not being in a position to see it in the first place would help. Staggeringly insightful, right? I have neither the scout’s eye nor the analytical mind to explain any possible mechanical differences in Castro’s swing, so I’m falling back on pure approach.
And if Castro can’t adjust his a bit, we’re going to some of these ugly trends continue deeper into the season. Pitchers and pitching coaches are a smart group and they’re going to take advantage of every weakness they possibly can. Rather than trying to impose his will on pitches, Castro would be better served to take what he’s given and work with it as he’s done in the past.
I’ve just spent a lot of time showing you some ugly charts and sharing bad news. The good news, however, is that it’s still very early in the season and Castro is a good enough hitter that he can correct much of what’s been going wrong.
I certainly hope that’s the case too, as I want to continue posting pictures of Starlin Castro with his index finger pressed to his lips to shush the critics.