By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Alarm bells are going off, and nobody seems to notice or care.
The Cubs are welcoming the White Sox for a shortened, weak-coffee version of their annual interleague get-together – a grudgeless match for rights that don’t merit bragging. Their front office brain-trust is busy preparing for the amateur draft, sifting through scouting reports and slotting names on their board in advance of their favorite day on the calendar.
Meanwhile, they’d be wise to take a close look at their $60 million cornerstone shortstop, who should by now be the least of their concerns as the long-term rebuild pushes ahead.
Starlin Castro is not improving. In fact, he’s slipping.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer placed a big bet on the then 22-year-old with that eight-year deal last year, confident that the mercurial talent could tighten up both his defensive lapses and plate discipline enough to ensure a mid-20s breakout that would make him look like a bargain.
“We’re building a young core, and Starlin’s right in the middle of that,” Hoyer said last August, when it seemed sensible to lock in the cost-control of a shortstop who had already accumulated impressive offensive numbers through nearly three full seasons at such a young age.
The statistical trend, however, must now be keeping Hoyer up at night. If the rapid growth in Castro’s game is to come, some scary year-to-year numbers need to reverse themselves.
Castro’s weighted on-base average (or wOBA, a better measure of total offense than on-base % plus slugging %) in 2011 was a slightly above-average .338. Last year is was right around the league average of .323. This year, through 223 plate appearances, it’s an unacceptable .301.
What’s worse are the strikeout and walk numbers critical to the Cubs’ way of approaching the game, as both rates continue in the wrong direction. Castro walked 4.9% of the time in 2011, popped up to 5.2% last year, but is back down to a career-low 4% this season. He struck out at a 13.4% clip in 2011, 14.5% last year, and is currently at a career-worst 16.1%.
His power is fading, too. Isolated power (ISO) is a way of measuring extra bases per at-bat, subtracting batting average from slugging. After reaching .147 last year, he has dropped to .108.
Fewer walks, more strikeouts, less power.
Batting average of balls in play (BABIP) could tell us if he’s been hitting into some bad luck, but even that’s looks ominous when we see that his 2011 season featured a .348 BABIP. His line drive percentage of 19.9 means a ball off his bat should be a hit around 32 percent of the time, so his 2012 BABIP of .315 and this year’s .316 look normal. It could be, then, that 2011 season that may have had the good fortune, not the opposite.
There are currently 19 major-league shortstops with enough appearances to qualify for the value leaderboard at fangraphs.com. Castro is 18th, with a 0.4 WAR through the first third of the season. His defense per Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) currently ranks him 20th of the 26 qualified shortstops at -1.0, so that aspect of his game is further decreasing his current value, and the eradication of the mental mistakes — not necessarily reflected even in the advanced numbers – looks to be a continuing project.
There is ample time to re-write this troubling script, and for Castro to snap back to the form that merited the risk of that contract. 50 games is far from a definitive sample size.
Still, it is important to view Castro in the larger picture, and ask if he really is ever going to be the kind of efficient, disciplined player Epstein and Hoyer are so clear about preferring, especially as another draft approaches. He was not their guy until they swallowed hard and committed to him, gambling that his development curve could be trusted to produce at least a 4+ WAR shortstop, and soon.
That day could be coming, but it may be time to discuss contingencies for the possibility that it never does.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM (or you can listen online).
Listen to The Boers and Bernstein Show podcasts »