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Entries in Chicago Cubs (33)

Tuesday
Aug212012

Rizzo Connecting in Chicago

Despite punishing Pacific Coast League pitching, Anthony Rizzo's first foray in the majors with the Padres last season could be summed up as one giant whiff. Rizzo's mighty -- and mighty long -- swing produced a .141/.281/.242 line in 153 plate appearances. His 30.1% strikeout rate was one of the 15 highest marks in the majors among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. Once San Diego picked up Yonder Alonso as part of the Mat Latos deal with the Reds, they decided they'd rather have Andrew Cashner's dominant-yet-brittle arm than Rizzo's pull power (hardly a great fit at Petco Park) and contact woes.

Called back up to the big leagues in late June, Rizzo has rewarded former Red Sox and current Cubs execs Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, who originally drafted him in the 6th round of the 2007 draft and included him in the December 2010 Adrian Gonzalez trade. Rizzo is batting .294/.335/.471 in 200 PA, and he has chopped his K rate all the way down to 14%.

Check out Rizzo's contact rate by pitch location with the Padres in 2011 and with the Cubs in 2012. He has made marked progress in connecting in every region of the zone, save for low-and-inside:

Rizzo in 2011

 

Rizzo in 2012

 

The biggest difference is on pitches thrown in the upper third of the zone. Rizzo missed 48.8% of high pitches that he swung at last season, blowing away (in a bad way) the 19% MLB average. This year, Rizzo has whiffed just 11.9% on high pitches. That contact has been hard, too. Rizzo batted and slugged .053 on high pitches last season (.405 MLB average for slugging on high pitches). This year, he's slugging .500 against high stuff.

Changes in strikeout rate become significant pretty quickly. And, as Fangraphs' Eno Sarris noted earlier this summer, Rizzo's hands look less fidgety and his swing path appears cleaner in 2012. With Wrigley Field playing much friendlier for lefty pull hitters (96 Park Factor, per StatCorner) than Petco (66 Park Factor) and Rizzo drastically cutting the Ks, it looks like Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod will get to enjoy the fruits of their Sox scouting labor after all.

Sunday
Aug192012

Cubs Commit to Starlin Castro

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.

Wednesday
May302012

Starlin Castro Swinging Away

As Fangraphs' Wendy Thrum notes, Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has been thrown out on the bases more often this season (five caught stealings) than he has drawn ball four (four walks). Castro likely won't become the first full-time player to pull off the '"feat" since Ozzie Guillen in the late eighties and early nineties if he shows even slightly better plate discipline from here on out. But Thrum's tidbit highlights just how much of a free swinger the 22-year-old has been in 2012.

During his first two years in the majors, Castro swung at between 32 and 33 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (excluding those lobbed during intentional walks). In 2012, the Cubs' potential franchise player has gone after 43 percent of pitches thrown out of the zone. That makes him the game's biggest hacker this side of Josh Hamilton.

Most of those extra swings have come on pitches way in on his hands. Check out his swing rate by pitch location in 2010-11, and then this season:

Castro's swing rate by pitch location, 2010-11

Castro's swing rate by pitch location, 2012

Breaking it down by pitch type, Castro has chased considerably more fastballs/sinkers and changeups. And he's the undisputed slider chase king:

Pitch2010-11 Chase Rate2012 Chase Rate
Fastball/Sinker 28.3 36.8
Curveball 31.6 25.7
Slider 39.4 62.9
Changeup 37 48.6

 

With Castro lunging at so many would-be balls, his unintentional walk rate has dipped from 4.5 percent in 2010-11 to just 1.9 percent in 2012. The lack of free passes hasn't hurt so far, as his 108 OPS+ this season is a slight improvement over his 107 mark the previous two years.

Castro strikes out at a moderate clip (a career 14 percent K rate) and he seems to have established himself as a batter who gets more hits on balls in play than most (his career BABIP is .346). Those traits have allowed Castro to post the eighth-best OPS+ ever among shortstops getting at least 1,000 plate appearances through age 22, according to Baseball-Reference. There's plenty to like already, and years for him to add polish before he reaches his presumptive peak. He could be a Derek Jeter doppelganger. But you have to wonder: Can Castro become a truly elite player while taking this many cuts?

 

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