Disclaimer: I am not about to presume how to tell professional hitters or coaches what they should do. In my prime years, I batted 6th on my company softball team, so there is no appeal to authority here.
But I do understand teaching and I do know enough to understand that the Cubs staff botched their efforts to "fix" Starlin Castro over the past couple of years. After Mauricio's great piece earlier on Castro, the former teacher/training coordinator in me got to thinking about what I would do with Castro and his approach to hitting.
For what it's worth, here is what I think: The Cubs were upside down, inside out and backwards in their efforts to change Castro's approach. Instead of having him focus on what he should take, they should have him focus on what he should hit. After all, that's what he likes to do. That's what motivates him. So why not appeal to that instead of getting him to think in a way that's completely unnatural to him?
If I were a hitting coach, I'd make it as simple as possible and let it develop from there. Specifically, I'd have Castro focus on taking the ball back up the middle -- from gap to gap and everything in between. That's where he has done a lot of damage in the past, so he should have something of a history and comfort zone with that approach.
Instead of consciously getting him to take pitches for the sake of taking them -- which seemed like the case last year -- I'd have him focus on how he's going to hit the ball. It's a subtle difference but if Castro goes up with the mindset of shooting the gaps and taking it back up the middle, then he's naturally going to look for pitches that will help him do that. He's going to look for balls that are in the middle or closer to either side of the plate -- and hopefully take a pass on pitches that are too hard to drive back up the middle (i.e. pitches low and away).
And forget right field. For now, anyway.
A mindset to take the ball to right field doesn't work because it makes him even more vulnerable to that pitch low and outside. If I were pitching, I'd much rather have Castro dump singles into RF than have him take one right back up the box. And as he continually settles for swinging at pitches off the plate to get opposite field hits, I would continue to expand that zone outward and exploit his eagerness to make contact. Then, right when I have him looking away, I can get away with surprising him high and in with good velo. It keeps him honest and keeps the pitcher in control of the at bat. In a nutshell, that's how pitchers consistently set up Castro last year. He was always one step behind.
Castro is an aggressive hitter. He wants to make hard contact and he's good at it, so tailor his approach to that strength. Get him to start thinking about where he wants to hit and what pitches will help him reach that goal. If he starts to have some success, I think discipline begins to take care of itself because the concept becomes less abstract to him. It becomes more of a practical matter because the presumption is that he won't want to swing at pitches that take him away from that success.
As a bonus, I think his patience can grow organically this way. He's never going to walk at anything more than an average rate (at best), but if he's hitting pitches hard consistently between the inside and outside corners of the plate, then pitchers are going to start avoiding the plate altogether and hoping to get him to chase. As long as he understands that will get him away from what he wants to do -- which is drive the ball between the gaps, then logic dictates that he should wait for them to make that mistake in his zone. Moreover, as pitchers are forced to work closer in, they won't be able to expand as far off the plate. He'll still be able to occasionally poke that outside pitch to RF, but he won't depend on it as heavily as he did last year. That should not be his bread and butter. It should be his fallback, a skill he utilizes only when the opportunity and situation arises.
To put it in simplest terms, he needs to learn to set up pitchers better. As noted, so far it's been the other way around.
One of the many things I admired about Ryne Sandberg was his ability to dupe pitchers into throwing baseballs into his wheelhouse. He frequently set them up swinging at and fouling off outside pitches knowing that eventually they would try to come back and bust him inside. And when they did, he was ready. When he was in a groove, he was always one step ahead.
I have no doubts that Castro has the physical skills needed to be a plus to plus-plus hitter with above average power. It's the mental part of the game that he needs to develop. But to do that, you cannot throw too much at him and force him to switch to an unfamiliar mindset. If you do that, he'll always be playing catch-up. You need to use his strengths and keep him motivated. You need to keep him focused by setting simple goals that he can build on.
I think if he can do that, the rest can take care of itself. Castro doesn't need to be fixed, he needs to be pointed in the right direction. The rest is up to him.
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