By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Starlin Castro is headed in the wrong direction.
It doesn’t take any kind of experienced scout to see outs being made, or any kind of analytical wizard to see month-by-month batting numbers sliding into frightening territory.
In March/April, Castro batted .333 with a .351 on-base percentage. In May, those numbers were .304/.311. June, .264/.302, July, .235/.279, and so far in August he’s at .180/.255. That’s uninterrupted decline in both categories. His OPS has sunk markedly each month, and now hovers at a career-low .714.
It’s not like he’s wilting under the pressure of a pennant race, either, as the new regime’s tear-down season has everyone thinking only about development. All that is being asked of the Cubs’ crop of young players is to use this major-league time to get better, and one of their top talents is seemingly getting worse.
There are no easy answers, but Castro’s lack of patience at the plate is obvious, and it’s exactly the wrong problem to have under bosses who value long plate appearances and deep counts, and understand that the game is about not making outs. Castro leads the NL in outs made, as he did last season. There are factors that mitigate such a dubious-sounding achievement – producing runs when not out, specifically – but those are lacking in his case, currently.
“I think there’s a lot going on there,” Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper told the Boers and Bernstein Show last week. “I still feel like he goes up there without a gameplan every once in a while. Dale [Sveum] thinks he should be able to drive the ball a little bit more, and that requires some more patience and getting into more 2-1, and 3-1, and 3-0 counts.”
Castro has been receptive to coaching when it comes to defense. Already his footwork and decision-making have improved at shortstop, even if he remains prone to errors. His angles to the ball are more consistent, as is his throwing motion.
But hitting is another story, and any advice he’s getting doesn’t seem to matter.
“Because he’s been a .300 hitter in his first two years in the big leagues and has been an All-Star the last two seasons, I think by and large it’s gone in one ear and out the other,” Kasper said. “He’s thought, ‘You know what, I know what I’m doing and I think I can get through this.’”
Some feel a consistent spot in the batting order would benefit him, but that’s been difficult to justify as his performance has dwindled. The Cubs are busy sorting through prospects and possibilities, and Castro appears to have earned no guarantees.
Time is on his side, however. At 22, Castro is younger than Anthony Rizzo, Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson, which is easy to forget when we see that he’s already played 398 major-league games. Baseball Prospectus noted in June just how significant it is for a player to have seen that much action so early, looking at all position players in the game’s history with 1500 plate appearances through their age-22 season. Of that select group of 52 retired players, 23 are in the Hall of Fame.
That’s heady company, and illustrative of great opportunity. It should also be reason for Castro to start listening and learning, knowing what’s at stake for his career.
“I do think his youth speaks well for him,” Kasper said. “With more at-bats he should get a little more patient, he should learn the strike zone a little bit. He’s got a lot more time to develop here, but I do think there are some major changes he might have to make.”
There are new eyes evaluating Castro, belonging to executives who didn’t acquire him. He’s a holdover, and will need to prove that he remains a trusted part of the future. That statistical slide must be stopped and reversed.
It’s possible that a bottoming-out is just what he needs to open his ears to people who want to help him succeed. Baseball is rife with such stories, and Castro’s may just be the latest.
But the clock ticks. For now, the most optimistic number he has is his birthdate.
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.