The Chicago Cubs are reportedly on the verge of signing Starlin Castro to a seven-year, $60 million contract extension that includes an option for the 2020 season that could push the total value of the pact to $76 million.
Still just 22 years old, Castro has drawn the ire of manager Dale Sveum for occasionally spacing out on the field. Others wonder whether he can stick at shortstop long term, though he has seemingly made some progress using his strong-but-errant arm). But despite those concerns, Castro's performance at such a young age stands out. Among shortstops getting at least 1,500 plate appearances from age 20-22, Castro's 104 OPS+ bests the likes of Alan Trammell (97), Robin Yount (92) and Edgar Renteria (84). In fact, the only shortstops meeting those criteria who fared better are all-time greats Rogers Hornsby (153; he shifted to 2B), Alex Rodriguez (139), and Arky Vaughan (137).
Just what type of hitter Castro will become in his prime years remains an open question. There are two competing trends manifesting at the plate for the Cubs shortstop -- one pushing him toward potential stardom, the other constraining his progress. Castro is gradually tapping into his power potential, putting more pitches in the air and hitting to the pull side more often. But he's also giving away some ABs with a Soriano-sized strike zone.
Castro didn't show much pop as a 20-year-old rookie back in 2010, hitting three home runs and posting a .108 Isolated Power (ISO) in 506 plate appearances. He didn't really hit many pitches skyward, as you can see by comparing his fly ball rate by pitch location to the league average:
League Avg. Fly Ball Rate by Pitch Location
Castro's Fly Ball Rate, 2010
Castro hit a fly ball a little less than 27% of the time he put a pitch in play, well under the 36-37% MLB average. He began to trade some grounders for fly balls in 2011, raising his fly ball rate to 31%. Castro's homer total climbed to ten, and his ISO increased to .125 in 715 PA:
Castro's Fly Ball Rate, 2011
This year, Castro's fly ball rate sits at 34%. He has gone deep 12 times already in 508 PA, and his .148 ISO ranks seventh among qualified shortstops. Castro's lofting most anything thrown upstairs:
Castro's Fly Ball Rate, 2012
He's also pulling the ball a little more, with his percentage of pitches put in play to left field rising from 41.1% in 2010 to 43.3% this season. But while the 6-foot, 190 pounder is hitting more forcefully, he's also turning into a hacker.
Castro was a little more jumpy than most hitters in both 2010 and 2011, chasing about 32% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (28% MLB average). Comparing his swing rate by pitch location to the league average, he lunged at a bunch of low pitches as a rookie (contributing to that low fly ball rate) and swung at lots of inside pitches in 2011:
League Avg. Swing Rate by Pitch Location
Castro's Swing Rate, 2010
Castro's Swing Rate, 2011
In his third MLB season, Castro has taken that tendency to swing on inside stuff to the extreme:
Castro's Swing Rate, 2012
Going after so many inside offerings, Castro's overall chase rate has spiked to slightly over 37%. That's eighth-highest among qualified hitters, topping teammate and noted hacker Alfonso Soriano. And, as we noted last week, many of Castro's chases are on truly awful pitches.
As one might expect from a player thrust into the majors at 20 with scarce experience in the upper levels of the minors, Starlin Castro remains raw. But for all the consternation, Castro has managed to perform at an above-average level -- a level some future multi-time All-Stars and Hall of Famers didn't reach -- at an age when most players are sharpening their skills in high Class-A ball. He's exciting. He's exasperating. And his development may be the biggest factor in how quickly the Cubs climb from the depths of the NL Central standings.