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Starlin getting his groove back -- and maybe a little swag to go with it

Starlin getting his groove back -- and maybe a little swag to go with it

First of all there were the two clutch HRs.  The first was a 3 run shot that tied the game at 4.  The second brought the Cubs back to within one after the Pirates regained the lead.  Those were the most obvious reasons to get excited.

There was also the largely forgotten first AB, the one where Starlin laid off some pitches he normally swings at to draw the count full, then took the ball the other way to beat the Pirates shift.  Sure he could have taken that pitch and it would have been a walk, but Castro also showed us he still has that tremendous plate coverage, hand-eye coordination, and bat control.  That was about as refreshing to see again as a walk would have been.

Lastly, there was the excellent defensive game that showcased his athleticism, arm -- and even the kind of focus we'd been hoping to see when he alertly covered 3B on one particular play.

But there was also something else about Castro that was back yesterday.

The swag.

It didn't come back overnight.  You could see the confidence creeping back this offseason, in the spring, and over the previous couple of games.

If you listen to Castro, he'll tell you he never lost confidence, but pictures sometimes tell you a lot more than words.  There were times when you could see the frustration in Castro.  He'd shake his head after inexplicably swinging at another slider low and away or wince as if it physically pained him to weakly ground out on a pitch he normally hits on a clothesline.

But not last night.

After his 3-run HR yesterday, Castro stopped and glared at the baseball that had been so elusive to him for so long.  He punished it as if making it pay for making his life so difficult last season, putting it in it's proper place -- on a screaming line drive that didn't stop until it crashed against the empty bleacher seats down the left field line.

And then, as if all the world was right again, Castro put his head down and circled the bases, acting like he'd been there before -- because in all honesty, he had been there before.  No words could say that he was back better than Castro's confident trot around the bases.

As he touched home and high-fived his teammates, it felt like the prodigal son had returned.

We've been critical with him because of the inconsistency, the lack of focus, and the lack of discipline, but last night Castro reminded us that he was the guy who made scouts buzz long before most of us had even heard the name Javier Baez.  He helped us recall a time when it was he made us so excited for the future nearly 4 years ago as a precocious, fresh-faced, somewhat naive -- but quietly confident - 20 year old.

That fresh face is gone, now hardened by the trials of failure and harsh criticism -- the kind which he had never experienced before in his entire professional career.  But the confidence is back and perhaps this time it comes with a bit more wisdom.  No one ever doubted his talent -- from Larry Bowa's observations yesterday to a conversation I had with a scout this offseason.  The veteran scout still felt he had Hanley Ramirez level talent from a physical standpoint, but then emphatically added that Castro needed to grow up.  In all honesty, he wasn't 100% confident that it would happen.  After all, some guys never reach that level of maturity you need to thrive in the big leagues.

The skeptics will say it's still early and that we should reserve judgment until Castro can do this over a larger sample size.

I agree with that.

But there was something about Castro's glare yesterday that has me convinced that he is back and perhaps better than ever -- with a little bit more swag and the kind of hard knocks wisdom and maturity that only comes when one conquers failure.

If last night was any indication, then maybe he has crossed that threshold.  If that is true and Castro is indeed back, then this time he you can bet he's here to stay.

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    I personally think the 2011 version of Starlin Castro, and the .307/.341/.432 slash line, was a bit flukey. But there's no reason to think he can't return to 2012 Starlin, he of the 14 HRs, and yes, 100 Ks. I think he'll always be a bit of a hacker and strike out more than you like, but if he can contribute 10-15 HRs, hit over .280, and play decent defense, that's enough to be a plus for us.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Dont' agree on that. He has the profile of a guy who is a .300 hitter who can make consistent contact. The lower average and higher strikeouts were in part to a crude attempt to change his approach overnight.

    Scout I referenced in the piece is a very good one and has been around the game a long, long time. He sees huge talent with his hit tool -- on par with that of H.Ramirez but for him it was what between Castro's ears that was holding him back -- and offensively, his head wasn't all the way there in 2012 because of the poorly implemented (and executed) changes to his approach.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    One game and Castro's back in the groove. A bit of a stretch.

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    In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Well, he's 9 for his last 20...still a small sample size, but not "one game". And, I think the point is more about how he looks!

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    Last year, I was a critic of Castro's when it came time for him to sit down or take a week to ease the frustration in him... Many wanted him to battle through it but each game took his frustration to a deeper level it seemed.

    This year, he seems to definitely have a desire to prove all his skeptics wrong and i do agree that we need to see this from him on a more consistent basis... I do not remember even a time last year where he had back to back games of 3 hits where it looked like he had his groove or swag back like the last 2 games.... I am hoping RR leaves him in the #6 spot where he seems to be comfortable and can help the team with his aggressive nature

  • In reply to rynofan74:

    I do think he's comfortable in that spot. The #6 spot fits for him because it allows him to concentrate on what he does best -- which is make hard, consistent contact.

    I think he'll eventually walk some but not a whole lot -- certainly no better than the MLB average, in my opinion. But he looked locked in last night and really, for the past few games. I hope it's a sign of things to come.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    The six hole will be particularly good for Castro if the Cubs can get on base with him up to bat. It will force the pitcher to throw strikes and allow Castro to use his aggressiveness to his advantage.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    You know I'm not so sure that's the case. In a much larger sample size he seems to thrive at the top of the order. Look the kid is talented and will hit anywhere. I'm convinced of that, but I'm not sure you want to diminish the number of AB's of one of your better hitters on a team that's deficient in hitting. Plus the more AB's he has the more chances he could be on base to use his legs to steal a run or two by taking an extra base or scoring from 1st on a double or 2nd on a single or just simply stealing a bag, and maybe nothing at all, but just making his threat give the battery something to think about. No if ti's me I put at 2 behind Bonnie and 1st when Bonnie sits. Every now and again I'd put him lower if the matchups dictate it.

  • Whatever RR and Mueller are doing so far is definitely working with Castro and Rizzo. It seems like Starlin was distracted last season by a number of issues and he's back to wanting to punish the baseball. Teams appeared to not really respect Castro's ability to make contact last season and were beating him with fastballs over the plate... now he's destroying those pitches.

    Castro & Rizzo now have a .318 BABIP, which is totally within reason and sustainable by both. When Rizzo's power numbers improve those two guys just might just become that 4 WAR player we're looking for

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    In reply to Paulson:

    My wife pointed out last night as we were watching on gameday on our anniversary dinner lol that didnt Castro have a new born last year??? Case in point to all newborns, parents tend to not get any sleep and get distracted much more easlily.... She seemed to think that Castro will bounceback this year and we will see the 2011/2012 Castro

  • In reply to rynofan74:

    I know what all my friends looked like when they had a newborn. It's a tough time -- but on the bright side, that can also bring maturity.

  • In reply to Paulson:

    Agreed -- I think the changes made Castro tentative and the thought process slowed him down and robbed him of his instinctual approach.

    And I didn't even note the BABIP -- that is indeed a good sign for both players.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    The BABIP impresses me more with Rizzo because he is often hitting into a big shift, which means he isn't lazily pulling everything, he's staying in there on the pitch and driving it up the middle or occasionally the other way.

  • Your right, John. It is palpable. He's back! He looks stronger and meaner and ready. Seems he's rightfully got a chip on his shoulder this year. And I love it. He's The Core!

    I was looking this up last night. He just turned 24 for Pete's sake, and he's already got 700 career hits. Barring serious injury could he be the first Cub since the 1890s (Cap Anson) to get to 3000?

    I get batting 6th for now. But if he keeps this up and I expect him to, he's gotta be in the 3-hole, no?

  • In reply to TTP:

    It's hard to believe he's just 24 -- about the age of your average rookie and 3 years away from a prime players age.

    Chip on his shoulder is a good way to put it. Nothing can make you focus more than that.

    I don't know about moving him up right now. He seems to be enjoying being in a lower spot where he doesn't have to be an OBP type. Leave him at #6 for awhile and let Starlin be Starlin.

  • Still to young to judge. I think a manager who speaks his language
    can't be overlooked.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Agreed. He's still very young and he seems to have connected with Renteria very well.

  • Good piece john, I always felt castro had more power than a lot of people thought. Last night kasper recalled jim telling him castro is bigger than he thought last year. What I didn't buy was some people saying he was just a guy, like his talent level was not high. But I saw what you saw last night, a guy who had confidence and knew he belongs in that same light bowa and the scout think he could be.

  • In reply to seankl:

    Thanks Sean. Castro definitely looks like he's put some lean muscle weight on. He absolutely crushed that first pitch.

    I think with Castro it's all about his head. If he doesn't mature as a player, I can see him being something like Edgar Renteria or Yunel Escobar.

    If he does mature -- and I hope last night was indeed a sign -- then he can be much more than that.

  • Another thing, Starlin didn't have much Spring Training. He really is a natural.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Good point.

  • To me I thought Castro's confidence was evident in his first swing after going 3-3. Even though he missed it (or fouled off id remember) it was a big confident swing we haven't seen for awhile, no softly reaching for the ball.
    I also feel like I have seen Rizzo work late trying to go the other way more this year than I saw all of last year. Anyone else feel this way? Definitely a good thing if what I think i'm seeing is true!

  • In reply to Cubswin2015:

    I agree that Rizzo is trying to do that. I think last year he realized pulling the ball into a shift every at bat won't do much for you.

  • In reply to Cubswin2015:

    Very good point. The confidence is showing in his swing -- as if he knows he's going to make contact and hot hoping for it.

  • John, love the article and even got my heart to race a bit. Agree with most of what you wrote, but just won't have as much conviction until he repeats over a 2-3 week span. I will say this after his 0-9 start (aka accelerated spring training) he is 9-20 with a 2B, 2 HR and 6 RBIs....maybe I am starting to believe....hold....hold....

  • In reply to Swmrdak79:

    Haha! Thanks. I'm excited too but I don't blame you for being guarded. I'm still in wait and see mode as well -- but I like the signs.

  • I'm watching the replay of the game. Very different pitches... the first looked to be a 2-seamer that ran in on him a bit. The second a curve that stayed high. Castro went down a little and mashed it just like John said. Quite a bit more loft on the 2nd one.

    It sure would be nice to have both 44 and 13 come out of their year-long funks and be the players everyone thought (hoped?) they would be.

    One early surprise this year is Schlitter. Another is Grimm. Really good hard stuff with control.

    EJax? Ugh!

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    In reply to MoneyBoy:

    Schlitter is going to make it hard for them to make a decision when Arrieta comes back from rehab.... Do we send down Schlitter who has performed above expectations, Grimm who wants to be a starter again, or Rondon who looks like he can be the setup man of the future......

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    In reply to rynofan74:

    Or just give Wesley Wrong a bus ticket, lefty or otherwise.

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    In reply to Mike Partipilo:

    Agreed lol... Wesley hasn't exploded yet but i do understand the heart attacks in waiting when he comes into the game lol.....

  • In reply to rynofan74:

    I got an idea-Lets put EJax on the 60 day DL. Wish it were that easy.

  • For me, I saw it when he lined that 2 RBI double the other day. He looked fantastic early in ST, then got hurt. He was obviously rusty when he came back. But appears to hitting his groove now. I like this Old or "Good" Castro.

    I think with every year, the maturity, the focus, etc... will improve. It's not a light switch, that development happens in a more linear fashion. He will be a beast when he hits his prime in 2-3 years. Also, he will likely never walk a lot, but I don't think it will really negatively impact his OBP much as he has such a great hit tool. But I think some of what they've did to him the last 1.5 years, with pitch selection will stick. He's learning to battle and be patient for his pitch. He's a good bad ball hitter and will expand his strike zone, but he can handle pitches 2 inches off the plate well. So long as he doesn't expand at those pitches 6in off, he's golden.

    fwiw, there's a lot of similarities with him and Baez in those regards. Javier obviously just has the ridiculous HR power.

    You see an obvious difference in Rizzo & Castro both this year and we credit Mueller & RR... and rightfully so. But Valbuena also looks like a different hitter this year and so does Barney. DB hasn't gotten the results just yet, but he's had some hard shots that were right at defenders, I think the hits will come. When is the last time you ever heard "Loud outs" and "Darwin Barney" in the same sentence? That itself is a huge feat....

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    I Agree with you quite a bit here. Castro is being himself but he is working counts, as well. Between him and Baez, I feel they have the same approach, but Castro has the better hit tool and Baez clearly has the better power.

  • No one needed an off season like Castro, and have a chance to jettison all the BS that was 2013. I believe he will be a consistent .300 hitter, and for now, hitting 6th or even 5th would be conducive that stability.
    There is more than enough room for Baez and Castro on the team, speculation otherwise is idle chatter.

  • In reply to IVYADDICT:

    He really did need to get away and regroup, catch his breath, and re-focus. So far it looks like he has.

    Agreed on Castro and Baez together. Would love to see it.

  • I wasn't sure about the 6th spot for Castro, but the more I see of it the better I like it. I agree, let's leave him there for a while and let him get his confidence and complete swagger back. He has way too much talent to be just another guy. I agree that there was the look in his eyes last night that said, "Hey I am good and I belong in the big leagues". Very seldom does a player get 600 bats a season for two years and hit .300 and just become another guy. Welcome back Starlin!

  • In reply to cubbybear7753:

    Well said. Have to agree there. I'd keep him at 6 but Renteria thinking about moving him up. Maybe vs. LHP but I say keep Kalish #2 vs. RHP. I like his ability to get on and be an asset on the bases.

  • Nice article. I feel like Starlin's personal struggles last year in a lost season for the Cubs might actually turn out to be a good thing. He learned what it's like to struggle and will hopefully come out mentally stronger - something that could pay dividends when our next wave of talent inevitably goes through similar growing pains and he can share his experience as a respected role model and leader for other young Cubs. Plus, his struggles might be way we were able to snag Bryant! I'm also curious to see if just a shadow of the patient approach insisted last year lingers (positively) in Starlin's approach going forward - even if it's just a 2% higher walk rate over time. I still want him to do what he does best and be aggressive - but perhaps just slightly more selectively than he had previously.

  • In reply to Da Ivy:

    Thanks and interesting thought about Castro going through the hype and then the struggles making him a potential leader/mental. We can say the same thing about Anthony Rizzo.

  • I was really impressed with Castro's first at bat for the reasons John mentioned, but also because he finally didn't look like he was pressing with two strikes. So often last year he was obviously nervous or anxious with two strikes, and that look was nowhere to be seen yesterday. He stayed comfortable in every count and did what he does best.

    And what do you know, all those who were ready to send him back to AZ for rehab or to AAA after TWO GAMES have really dissipated. I think people really forget that he's still about three years away from his prime, and on an insanely team friendly deal for a long time.

  • In reply to nmu’catsbball:

    Good point. He stayed calm and patient with 2 strikes on him.

  • It is so good to see Castro hitting well and off to a good start. The way he turned on that 3 run home run pitch was insane. If I remember correctly it was down and in and he got the barrel of the bat right where he needed it. Then during the second at bat he did chase a pitch that he had no business going after. I am glad he missed it. He will still have those oh my goodness moments but I believe they can and will become less frequent. My 2 concerns are can he stay focused for a long period of time? And can he can continue to do what he does well even tho we may be out of it by Mid may? That will be good measuring stick for him.

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    Completely agree.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Are you worried about Wellington?

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    I'm not. I don't think he'll be a star, but I expect some .260 years with 12-15 HRs -- and once he settles down he shows he's willing to take a walk.

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    I'm curious to see how everyone does if we're out of it most of the year as well. For all Sveum's faults, one thing he could do was keep everyone playing hard everyday. Len and JD have spoken about it a few times: how will the happy go lucky atmosphere of Ricky's play out on a team that's out of contention? I hope he can keep it up, and I hope Baez and Bryant are there to help him if he can't.

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    I want you to be right more than anything! I would love to see Castro live up to his potential and get back on the track to stardom! P.S. I didn't know who was starting for the cubs last night but when I saw they were down 4-0 in the first inning I didn't even need to see the box score to know it was Jackson...

  • In reply to Brandon Halford:

    I want me to be right too! :)

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    I think Castro's returned confidence has a lot to do with having a new manager. I don't even want to criticize Dale here, but he and Castro clearly clashed with one another. Having a guy in charge that you can't seem to please no matter what you do is a tough position to be in. Add to that struggling with a system that he was uncomfortable with and you have a situation where every day was "what's going to go wrong next?" Renteria has been good for him and I'm so happy this happened here and not in St. Louis.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Very much agree.

    I don't think Dale realized that you treat different people differently. Some positive, some negative, some need tough love, and some need to be left alone -- and you may use each different strategy at different times with the same player -- but it seems like Dale was focused on negative reinforcement. Doesn't work with everybody. Got to know what buttons to push and when to push them.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Sveum had all the personality of a fried egg.
    I'm not that surprised there were issues with some players.
    Unfortunately for him, it was the two core guys.

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    Also the writeup on the home run choked me up a little. It really was a wonderful moment. We are so close.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Thanks, Mike.

  • Hey John, this article looks very poetic, a little different than your usual analytic style... You are indeed a versatile writer, props to you, I enjoyed reading this.

  • In reply to Caps:

    Thanks Caps. It was fun to not analyze on this one and enjoy the Castro game/moments on an emotional level. It's my usual writing style away from baseball so I'll try and use it more often here. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  • On a side note... Paul Blackburn allowed a 2 run shot in the 2nd inning, but has only allowed 1 hit in the following 3 innings... Hopefully he can build off that.

  • loved castro last night.. and RR getting tossed was also a lil entertainment. go get him rick!

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    For a loss, that was a very entertaining game! I'd take that game over a lucky win where the main contributors are stop gap players to be honest.

  • Great to see the swag and the piss rods over the fence. Great to see the good plays. I'm ok with him swinging at a 3-2 pitch that was never even in the zone in the first AB (even though, let's be honest, Ishikawa gave up on that ball...if it would've been a 3-1 put out how excited would we be??).

    But wait a second?? No mention WHATSOEVER, in the article or on the whole thread about him not coming up with Wely's one hop, routine-ish throw to complete the strike em out throw em out DP in the 8th?!?! We would've had 2 outs and nobody on with a strikeout pitcher on the mound. Instead its one out, man in scoring position.

    I'm not trying to be the Grinch That Stole The Pirates Game, but go back and look at Strop and Wely's body language on that play. They both had the "Come on, Man!!! F&@K!!" expression on their faces. It takes 25 guys but the game was lost from there. That was a dagger.

    No mention of it. Why?

  • In reply to Ben20:

    Castro played well in every way last night, but I wanted to focus on his ABs.

    Glad you added those in, though!

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    He did play well. If you take away the clanker that cost us the 8th inning that was the best game I've ever seen him play.

    I just went back and watched that first at bat (Girlfriend's like, "The Cubs are on?? "No, I'm just watching a couple of at bats from last night's game." "Ummm, okaaay???") and realized that I completely Zoo'd my interpretation of it in my comment above. I guess I was thinking of another play. That was a shift beater. So, I'll wear that. My bad.

  • Castro's at bat where he threaded the shift was more telling to me than the homers. That showed patience, intelligence, and skill. If he can keep that as part of his game AND maintain occasional power, he's going to be a monster. Pitchers and defenses and opposing managers will quickly learn that this isn't last year's Castro and will become very tentative in what they offer him at the plate. I hope he keeps it up and something tells me Ricky is just the kind of guy he needs right now at this stage in his playing career. Now, Ejax? Oh boy.

  • In reply to jaykaysr:

    That was probably his best AB overall even if he got better results in the other 2. If he does that often enough, he's going to be very, very good.

  • Agree, you can see the confidence on his face. Just maybe he can help some others start to reach their ceiling. Hopefully he leads the charge and this becomes contagious for others. I really do not think this is such a bad team.

  • In reply to Wild Bill:

    Agreed on all counts!

  • There sure is a lot of talk about Castro's hitting last night, and rightfully so. However, he played a "complete" game and also made two excellent plays in the field, going into the middle and getting McCutcheon and Alvarez at first. A lot of range at SS.

  • In reply to Tinker Evers Chance:

    Agreed -- He made a couple of errors this season, which gets magnified -- but overall I think he's played very well on defense. Last night he looked like a star in all facets of the game.

  • In reply to Tinker Evers Chance:

    On the Alvarez play, I liked how Starlin knew he had time to make the bounce throw. His whole game looked good last night.

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    You know, I think a lot of people are hanging way too much - both pos and neg - on Bowa's comments. It was standard boilerplate compliments with caveats. He's being interviewed by local press, he knows Castro is both hugely popular and hugely important to this team's success - what else is he going to say but, yeah, the kid has a lot of talent if he learns to focus.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    There have actually been some questioning his talent, but I've never heard that from a baseball person on or off the record.

  • Swagging ain't easy, but it sure is fun.

  • In reply to givejonadollar:

    LOL!

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    I for one have to believe that not having Rob Deer around is addition by subtraction as well.

  • Carlos Pimentel with a beauty this afternoon in Des Moines. 6 IP, 3 H, 1 R (earned on a HR), 1 BB, 10 K. He doesn't have overpowering stuff. Low-90s FB, low 80s slider, etc., and he's susceptible to the long ball (he's already given up 3 this year and allowed 17 in 128 innings in 2013), but as a 22-year-old in AA last season, he had the macro-profile I look for in a pitcher. Less than a hit per 9, more than a K per 9 and at least a 3:1 K/BB ratio. His wildness in 2010-2012 kept him off of any meaningful prospect lists in the Ranger organization, but he was way young for his leagues (19 in High-A, 20 & 21 in AA).

    So far on this young season, he's pitched 11 IP, given up 11 hits, walked 1 and struck out 16. He doesn't profile as anything more than a back of the rotation guy or middle reliever, but, if he can be a decent one, picking him up as a minor league free agent would be a steal. It may be a long shot for Carlos to become an effective 4th or 5th starter in the bigs, but at just 23 years old, he's still got time to make it.

    The addition of Pimentel to the Cubs organization now brings the number of former Texas Rangers pitching prospects to 6, if I'm not mistaken. Here's a link to a baseball instinct article on the top Ranger farm arms from 2012. It lists 5 current Cubs. Pretty hilarious.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Sorry, I was off a year with Pimentel's age. He's 24 this year ( and will be all year, and was 20 in High A/21 in AA.

  • Getting interesting re Rizzo's approach. If he gets the D out of that shift by punishing them the other way, he could be a real load, i.e., getting more pitches to deposit into the right field stands.

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