It’s been a rough first half of 2015 for Starlin Castro. After a strong start, Castro faltered in late April. The Cubs played a game on each of the first 17 days of May, during which time Castro played every day—and fell headlong into a slump the way out of which remains undiscovered. For all the talk about the Cubs’ impending logjam at shortstop, the team has had no good alternative to running Castro out every day this season, thanks to injuries to Tommy La Stella and Javier Baez, along with the stagnation of Arismendy Alcantara. It’s a good thing, from Castro’s perspective, because if any of those players were playing well, his role in the Cubs’ future would be in an immediate, urgent, gut-wrenching, day-to-day limbo. For Chicago, despite the difficulty of slogging through a long season with a painfully thin bench, it might be a blessing in disguise that this particular controversy has had no opportunity to bubble over. It’s the kind of thing that could (and maybe should, if we’re being really honest) be dominating the conversation around this team, and could certainly start to fracture and frustrate the clubhouse.
Castro just isn’t a good enough defender to carry a .650 OPS and return any value, let alone the .619 figure he carried into Tuesday’s doubleheader—and even that number would be better than the .576 OPS he was carrying since May 9th. In time, with dedicated coaching and better mental skills than he’s shown to date, he might show a better glove, especially if moved to second base. In the meantime, though, Castro’s bat will determine whether the Cubs have any interest in carrying him forward into their new era of (they hope) sustained success. No one knows that better than Castro, even if he’s forced to give lip service to the importance of defense in order to mollify the media.
To that end, he appears to be making a fairly major adjustment at the plate, and it’s not an effort to go the other way more or a mental approach change or a rediscovered devotion to patience at the plate. Castro has, instead, started where they always tell you to start: at the very beginning. (Of his swing, that is.)
Castro has done most things mostly the same way for about three years now. He sets up with a significant knee bend, but a fairly upright torso. He holds his hands high, behind his ear, and settles into an open stance as he awaits a pitch. He takes an open stance, his weight back, his front foot up on its toes. For most of the last few seasons, the first movement in his swing has been an almost pitcheresque leg kick, whereby he pulls his knee upward, coils his hip to align his feet, then strides long and straight at the pitcher.
That’s given him a bit of rhythm, and helped him adjust to the loss of that freakish hand speed that no one really has, once they turn 22 or 23. As Castro has added weight, lost speed, and looked to develop more power, he’s needed to find a new mechanical signature to fit that, and the swing I’ve described above does that (or some of that).
The problem is that, for all this way of doing things has given Castro, it’s also taken some things away. For one thing, that high kick and long stride compromise Castro’s balance. Despite always seeming to keep his hands back and maintaining a good swing plane through the hitting zone, Castro often finds that his weight has gone out from under him by the time he contacts the ball. He’s lunging at the ball, and that’s one reason he so often rolls over pitches and weakly grounds to the left side.
For another thing, the swing above is very mechanical, very piecemeal. Castro is an athletic player, but he has been working with an unathletic swing. The fluidity and the coordination that made him a .300-plus hitter at 20 and 21 are gone from this version of Castro; his upper and lower halves often don’t even move in concert with one another. He’s not quick, he’s not controlled, and he’s not strong, because he’s focusing too much on the elements of the swing, and too little on the swing itself.
As I said, though, Castro seems to be aware of this now. Very recently (I can first document it June 19th in Minnesota), Castro has made a change that appears small, especially at first, but might have a very large impact on the efficacy of his swing. After setting up almost identically to the way he had been, Castro is doing one different thing, right at the moment before launching his swing: he’s straightening up.
Specifically, what Castro appears to do is to momentarily straighten and stiffen his lower back, in turn straightening his legs a bit. He then starts his stride, and again, most things go pretty much the same way, but there are a few key differences. For one, that first motion—it’s like a hitch in his lower half—forces a harder countermotion. Castro has to close his stride more in order to achieve hip coil. He has to wind his hands slightly more, as they start to move, in order to engage the muscles that maintain the balance in his swing. And he has to shorten his stride. His leg kick remains forceful and fairly high, but (when he’s doing things the way he means to do them) his front foot lands sooner and closer to the rest of his body. There’s more stability (and therefore, more strength) in his core throughout the motion of this altered swing. His hips don’t drift forward as much.
To date, results have been mixed. Castro hit a double after a tremendous at-bat on Tuesday night, looking balanced, strong and keyed in throughout that plate appearance. That was only his third extra-base hit of the three weeks during which he’s been using this new launch mechanism, though, and all three have been doubles. He’s striking the ball better at times, but the corner has yet to be turned. Castro is inconsistent right now. These new mechanics aren’t yet a part of his muscle memory, so although they’re more automatic, quicker, less robotic, they’re not easy to repeat right now. Castro continues to let the front foot leak out at times, and he continues to fight to get his front hip in the right position to stay on the baseball and create the opportunity for lift.
Here are his stats in the 75 plate appearances beginning June 19:
Starlin Castro, June 19-July 7, 2015
Those are ugly. They’re as bad as ever—no, they’re worse than ever. Look at the strikeouts, though. They’ve virtually disappeared. Back when Castro was Castro, when he was tapping into his exceptional hand-eye coordination, the thing that made him special was contact rate. He hit for average because he so consistently put the bat on the ball. He’s a different player now than he was then, and if he never stops rolling over on the ball and hitting it on the ground 60 percent of the time, he’ll never be that good again. If this swing adjustment takes, though, and if he can start to use that balanced, attacking swing more consistently, he might be able to get back to where he was, or even grow into something more.
It’s very hard to permanently change one’s ways, in any walk of life. Castro might never find the mechanical consistency, let alone the steady and assertive approach, that he needs in order to succeed. If he’s ever going to do it, though, the changes he’s made over the last three weeks are the start of it. The developmental clock is ticking. The competitive clock is ticking. Castro’s new swing has given him rhythm and a bit of his old quickness, but he’s going to need every ounce of it to outrun the onrushing threats of being replaced, or simply plateauing.
Lead photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports