The Maturation of Starlin Castro and Jeff Samardzija

I spent a lot of time talking to scouts and other industry sources about Starlin Castro and Jeff Samardzija this past offseason.  Nobody doubts their athleticism and physical ability yet both players always left Cubs fans wanting a little bit more.  There was something missing.

That something was a mature approach.  That is not to call either of these players immature, but both players have been very aggressive --sometimes overly so.  For Castro and Samardzija, it was more about knowing when to take the foot off the gas pedal.  Both players have the capability of beating the competition physically, but it was the mental approach that lagged behind.

On Starlin Castro

One scout I talked to felt that Castro has "Hanley Ramirez talent" but also felt that the missing part of the game was "all between his ears".

This is not to say that Castro doesn't have a high baseball IQ, good instincts, or the capability of making adjustments but he sometimes made you scratch your head.

The Cubs tried to address the issue during Dale Sveum's short reign here. They tried to change him into a more disciplined hitter and take more pitches.  That in itself is not a bad idea and Castro being the coachable player that he is, complied.  He took more pitches and upped his Pitcher per Plate Appearance (P/PA) to a career high 3.85 -- and had his worst season ever.

People searched for physical answers such as bad mechanics or lost bat speed, but I didn't buy either of those explanations.  He's always had the same minor flaws and 23 year old healthy kids don't just suddenly lose bat speed.

Castro simply looked lost.  He took pitches but he had no real plan at the plate.  He made the effort to take pitches but it struck me that he was taking them for the sake of taking them, because that is what he was told to do.  That is a real problem at the MLB level because most pitchers do have an idea of what they want to do up there.  

Castro abandoned his instincts and it was something that I wrote about last season.  I openly questioned whether the Cubs were taking from Castro's strengths as a hitter by making him conform to a style that was foreign to him.

At the same time, my own instincts as an educator felt like even those poorly executed attempts to change Castro's approach weren't necessarily a waste of time.  Those lessons do stick even if it doesn't manifest itself properly right away.  What Castro needed to do was integrate those lessons with his own strengths rather than try to completely reinvent what has always worked for him.

It appears that Castro is doing exactly that this season.

Ironically, Castro's P/PA has gone down this season to 3.53 while his walk rate has increased to about 6%, which is actually a career high  for him.  Since the beginning of the Arizona series when things really seemed to click for him, he has walked at 8.8% rate with a 13.8% K rate (80 PAs).  His P/PA in May has also increased to 3.72 If this shift is for real, then we can expect Castro to put up career numbers in 2014.  He's already on the way there.  His RC+ (111) and wOBA (.339) are already slightly above his best offensive year in 2010 and they are trending upward.

A further statistical breakdown of Castro's approach shows that although he is seeing fewer pitches, he is swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, it is down to a career low 30.7% -- a 3% drop from last year.  And for once in his career, Castro is making pitchers adjust to him.  Knowing he won't swing at as many pitches outside the zone, pitchers have thrown him more strikes overall (48%) even though they continue (mostly unsuccessfully) to get him to chase the first pitch outside of the zone to get ahead.   Castro laying off that first pitch more often has forced pitchers to throw more strikes later in the count, which makes a ton of sense for any pitcher who falls behind 1-0.

It's a good thing that Castro is maturing as a hitter, because Castro is clearly losing speed.  The stolen bases and percentage of infield hits have gone way down, but the quality of his contact has gone up.   The line drive rate is a career high 21.5% as his Isolated Power (!SO), which is at .162.

It appears Castro is evolving from an aggressive hitter with some speed to a selectively aggressive hitter with more power -- and that is an evolution that I am sure is a welcome one for the Cubs.

On Jeff Samardzija

Similarly, scouts I talked to felt Samardzija was too aggressive for his own good.

With Samardzija it's always been about power.  He's always had the football mentality on the field that he was going to overpower you and beat you physically.  He's certainly capable of doing this with one of the hardest fastballs in the league among starting pitchers.  He also had the wipeout splitter which absolutely has put hitters away over the past 2+ seasons.

But the problem is that MLB hitters are also competitive and some were more disciplined. So while Samardzija would often win battles, the number of pitches would sometimes cost him the war.  And it wasn't just running up his pitch count -- make a pitcher throw enough pitches and eventually he'll make a mistake -- which Samardzija often did, giving up about a HR every 9 innings with 13% of the flyballs he gave up leaving the yard.

This year Samardzija's P/PA (3.76) is down slightly from last year in what has been a trend for him over the past few years.  It still needs to go down but at least it is trending in the right direction.

What Samardzija has done is throw a lot more 2-seam fastballs, a pitch which has more movement, particularly when it is down in the strike zone.  He's thrown it a career high 43.3% of the time, up from 27.7% last year and 16.4% the year.  At the same time, the number of 4 seamers, a pitch with more velo that tends to stay higher in the zone and have less movement, has gone down the past 3 years to a career low 15.2% this year (25.1% in 2013 and 36.8% in 2012).

Pitches lower in the zone are easier to catch up to for hitters when pitchers throw as hard as Samardzija does, so the number of strikeouts have gone down (7.23 per 9/IP from 9.01/9IP last year and 9.27/9IP the year before) but the walks have also gone down to 2.57/9IP from last year's 3.29/9IP mark.  His ground ball percentage, in turn, has gone up to a career high 51.6% while his HRs allowed are way, way down to 0.32 per 9 IP.  Line drives are also at a career low rate as a starting pitcher.

To put it simply, Samardzija has relied more on his defense this year (contact pct. at a career high of 82% and 5% higher than last season), or as Crash Davis of "Bull Durham" would put it..

Like Castro, Samardzija has matured and learned to channel his aggression and become more efficient. Both players are learning to be more selective and save that aggression for when it works to their advantage. Castro and Samardzija are tremendously gifted physically and now that the approach and mental part of the game is starting to catch up, we can finally start to see each player beginning to approach his potential. And, in the absence of winning, that is something that Cubs fans have been waiting for over the past 3 seasons.


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  • strikeouts are fascist!

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:


  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    Candlesticks make a nice gift.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Haha! Bull Durham is still my favorite baseball movie.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Skip: You guys. You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Larry!

    Larry: Lollygaggers!

    Skip: Lollygaggers.


  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    Another great line!

    A good friend of mine once told me, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."

    Think about that for awhile.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I will admit my 'weirdness',.... have never seen Bull Durham all the way through.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Oh, you should give it another try. In my opinion, it's the best of the group of baseball movies that came out around that time (The Natural, Field of Dreams, Major League, Eight Men Out) -- though they're all good in their own way. Bull Durham is just my personal preference.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Unless my memory is shot, Bull Durham actually has some stuff in it about how to actually play the game. The others have little to none of that.

  • In reply to Richard Beckman:

    Agreed. That's one of the things I liked about it. From a baseball standpoint, it is much more accurate (though Tim Robbins mechanics are frightful -- obviously not a ballplayer like Costner)

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Apparently Bull Durham was written for Kurt Russell to play the Crash Davis role, but the studio wanted a bigger name and chose Costner. Russell actually played minor league ball. I must admit Costner was great, but I always wonder how that movie would have come out with Kurt Russell instead.

  • In reply to SenatorMendoza:

    I didn't know that. Russell was indeed a minor league player and a good hitter in a very limited sample size -- in the Angels org, I believe.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Wow, I didn't know that:

    He made it up to AA and had some talent!

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Apparently Russell had his shoulder fubared in AA, and that's why he stopped. I saw in an interview, he had worked into his contracts with Disney growing up that he would be able to leave the set to make it to his little league games and they'd have to film around his schedule. Acting was just a fun way to earn some money, he was supposed to be a ball player. Just think without that injury, no Jack Burton and his Pork Chop express. That's not a world I want to live in.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Another one that was made in 87 was Long Gone, with William Petersen and Virginia Madsen. Petersen turned down the lead in Platoon in favor of this movie. I remember Henry Gibson from Laugh-In played the owner, and Teller (Penn and Teller) played his son. Kind of like the Slap Shot of baseball movies.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Oh, that's right. I remember that one but I don't think I remember much of the details.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Loved Slap Shot btw,..... And I am oh so not a hockey fan.

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    Stupid line, if you think about it. A Hollywood writer's line. Not a ballplayer's.

  • In reply to TheThinBlueLine:

    It's both in this case. The writer, Ron Shelton, played professional baseball as a minor leaguer with the Orioles for 5 years. Reached AAA.

  • I've maintained my faith that both of these guys would figure out how to make their immense talents work for them. Last year was certainly discouraging, but I truly believed it was just a bump in the road for both of them. Shark should still only be dealt if a team is willing to overpay for him because I still have no issue paying Shark market price when he gets to FA.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    You don't have an issue paying market price but thing is you're not cutting the check.

    I think we can safely assume Shark is interested in testing free agency.

    At some point it can't be "Let's not trade him unless it's a steal from a desperate team"

    Sooner or later we're going to become the desperate team when it's clear he doesn't want to sign with us and we risk losing him for nothing more than a comp pick.

    That is not to say to give him up for nothing but I don't think this incredible haul is going to be needed the trade to happen.

  • In reply to Cubbie Mike:

    The Cubs plan to compete around the time Samardzija becomes a FA. The team should hopefully be good enough by then where he would want to stay and try to win a WS. The Cubs are a big market team. They can afford to pay a couple of guys market value. Especially at that point in the rebuild when Soriano's salary is no longer on the books and really there will be no one on the roster even making 10 million a year. Its not me writing the check, but I think it is fairly safe to say the Cubs can and will pay top dollar for some guys, so why would they be unwilling to do so for their own guys?

    FA does not scare me. Worst case, he gets hurt or he leaves and we get a comp pick. Either would suck. But Shark is about as safe of an injury risk as a pitcher can be given his athleticism and lack of innings on his arm at his age and many teams, even the mighty Red Sox lose guys like Ellsbury to FA and take the comp pick and just reallocate the money elsewhere. I'm willing to bet on the top prospects being on the big club and starting to produce where the offense should no longer be a problem and Shark would actually want to stay. In the meantime, if an offer comes up that is too good to pass up then fine, trade him.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    The Cubs can afford to pay anyone but at a certain point it doesn't mean you do it.

    My point wasn't that they couldn't afford it, but it's better to pass on someone rather than grossly overpay.

    We don't know his limit but I'm not handing him a blank check. Who's the even say he's going to even fetch a contract that is "market value"? Free agents are routinely overpaid.

    Free agency doesn't scare you but again, you're not the one making these decisions. I'd bet anything that he doesn't reach free agency as a Cub next year. He's either traded or re-signed and there's been no indication that he's willing to stay.

  • In reply to Cubbie Mike:

    They would obviously have to draw the line somewhere. I mean if he wants Verlander or Kershaw money you politely decline and choose someone else to pay. If he is looking for Homer Bailey money, I have no issue with it.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    And meanwhile, he's taken all of the risk by waiting to become a FA. Why on God's green earth would he want to remain a Cub? They will have had 4 years to sign him at that point. NOT gonna happen.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Agreed. I am on board with signing him to an extension as long as it is reasonable for both sides.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    If he gets to FA, Shark will not be considering the Cubs. If that ship hasn't sailed already.

  • You're one of my favorite writers on baseball and the Cubs as you're knowledge of the game and player development is extensive. However, as a "layman," I lose my understanding of your points when you add in all the statistical acronyms that you use to pepper your points. Is there a website that lists all these acronyms, what the phrases are that they are short for, and perhaps most importantly, "why" these acronyms are so significant? I read your posts every day, so when you respond I'll be able to bookmark it and use the link as a reference for future use.

    Thanks for all your great baseball insight

  • In reply to toboyle9:

    Thanks toboyle9. I have a stats glossary up at the top but I will have to update that.

    In this case, almost everything I used was from Fangraphs except for P/PA, which stands for pitches (faced for hitters or thrown for pitchers) per plate appearances.

    Here is a stats glossary from Fangraphs if that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. I will write out what the acronyms stand for more consistently in future articles,

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    Great read, John. This is my favorite place to go for Cubs info.

    In regards to Shark and a potential contract extension, do you think that the $ are the bigger issue or the potential for a no-trade clause? Seems he is insistent on having the no-trade clause given past player movement by the organization, but I can't see the front office budging on that one either. Even if they can agree on $, I'm not sure that an agreement can be had.

  • In reply to KC3772:

    Thank you!

    The rumor I've heard is that it is more about the No-Trade Clause.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I wish when it gets close to trading Jeff, both sides can sit down, compromise some, and get a creative fair contract signed.

  • In reply to John57:

    Agreed. I'd just rather keep him. I think he is likely to stay healthy (low early miles on arm at a young age, doesn't have a max effort delivery) -- and that is no small thing these days.

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    OT, but Royals and considering a demotion for former #2 pick Mike Moustakos. Just shows the volatility of prospects, as Moose-Tacos demolished the minor leagues.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    His approach was always shaky. Royals were expected to take Vitters that year because they were going to avoid Boras client Moustakas.

    If they had taken Vitters, the Cubs were set to pick current A's RHP Jarrod Parker.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Really? Darn. Parker has been pretty good, aside from being the 147th pitcher to have Tommy John surgery this year

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Yep..that would have been interesting. The player they; liked most of all was Wieters but ownership wasn't prepared to meet his demands, so they had Vitters on top if their list and Parker next.

  • Be nice if the Cubs could actually SCORE when Spellcheck is pitching. No wins and a sub2 ERA is ridicoulous. Its not like hes facing Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson every start, either.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    That would be helpful :)

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    In reply to mutant beast:

    It would be nice if the Cubs could score when anyone is pitching.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    This is also true.

  • One can analyze every aspect of his game till kingdom come. Castro is still at best an average player. Samardzija, on the other hand, deserves high praise. Too bad he's stuck on the Titanic.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Or one can avoid analysis and scouting opinion, make a vague assessment and be satisfied with it.

    To each his own..

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Nothing vague about it. His performance speaks for itself. A 280 hitter, decent with the glove, doesn't hit in the clutch, and a bit distrait on the field---remember how Ramirez doubled him up?

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Can't get any more vague than "average". You're a wordsmith, Aquinas, you would know that as well as anyone.

    What you are describing isn't objective measurement -- and a "clutch hitter" is a myth, that has been shown by every reputable objective analysis you can find. Who would you call a clutch hitter?

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thanks for the in depth analysis.

    This site is great for discussion, but at least bring some facts to your side of the argument like John did.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    And by the way, in the last 3 years, Castro has a higher batting average with men in RISP (.280) and runners on (.290) than he does overall (.271)

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I think we're talking about the present season. What happened in the past is really irrelevant.

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    In reply to Aquinas wired:

    The league BA is in the .250's, so even a .280 hitter is above average - for that category. Batting average in general is an outdated stat, especially on it's own. But three times in four seasons, a kid still years away from prime years has hit "better than average", twice topping .300. He has also led the league in assists and put outs twice. Noting about any of that spells "average"

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Plus he's a shortstop. Why don't you compare apples to apples?

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Castro,.... a 24 year old MLB player, already with >2500 AB, >700 hits, pushing 250 RBI and 300 runs scored, and even with last year's relative disaster at the plate in most statistical categories a lifetime batting average >0.280 and OPS >0.720. And a guy (while erratic) who has been close to the top on the numbers of put outs and opportunities for the premium position of SS,....

    Statements like "Castro is still at best an average player" are kind of undermined by the data if one bothers to look.

    He's on pace to hit for his career average or better this season, with a slighly improved walk rate, and could easily hit 20 HR, 30 2B, and have 70-80+ RBI and Runs scored on a terrible offensive team,......

    Come on,..... HOF guy,.... maybe not. But average?

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    When I started to follow baseball, when Musial and Williams, and Mays, and Aaron, and Clemente, and Mantle were around, and shortstops like Aparicio, a 280 hitter was average. Which is not to demean the term. Most players are average. So, pon analysis, Castro is hitting more line drives. Mostly outs. Sorry, that doesn't make him above average.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    There is more to evaluating than batting average -- and for many that particular metric isn't very useful on it's own. For example, Aparicio's defense made him an above average player overall. And his offense, even if the batting average was decent, was actually below average overall because his OBP and slugging were both below average.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John, you would take the 24-year-old Castro over the 24 year-old Aparicio? Just asking.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    At the end of Aparicio's 24 year old season (career to date):

    673 plate appearances .263/.312/.339/.652

    Castro's career to date:

    2775 plate apperances .283/.323/.407/.730

    If we add a year to Aparicio's career:

    2513 plate appearances .261/.313/.337/.651

    Add two years:

    3183 plate appearances .265/.315/.339/.654

    Aparicio was consistent. 18 year career line of .262/.311/.343/.653

    I'm not John, but I would take Castro.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    There was also about half as many teams. A lot easier to find 15 MLB caliber shortstops in the world then there is to find 30. Its like QBs in football, there aren't enough to go around for the number of teams that there are now.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Likewise there aren't that many good pitchers. Which would account for some batting stat inflation theses days.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    the Hall of Fame.. land of "average" shortstops

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    Who was the last HOF Shortstop that the Cubs had? Probably Banks. I was a big fan of Larry Bowa, Don Kessinger, and Ivan DeJesus - but were they 'better' than Castro?

    Give most teams the option for getting a SS that they can trot out there 150-160 games/year, who gives them Castro's career numbers (even with his current error rate) at the still-developing age of 24,..... who would be better right now? Troy Tulowitzki maybe (if he can stay healthy). Jimmy Rollins a few years ago, Jeter in his prime, or Hanley Ramirez (also if he can stay healthy)?

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Obviously he is not average. Some just can't see it or don't want to see it.

  • In reply to John57:


  • ouch. lol

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    Saw the baseball movie discussion a little further up the thread...I had to chime in. I know I've mentioned this several times before, but "Sugar" is an outstanding movie. Not just an excellent baseball movie, but a very good film, period.

  • In reply to Mike Partipilo:

    Yes, it is. One of the better recent films on baseball.

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    Final word on "average"???

    Terry Forster, Prince Fielder, Eric Hinske and Rich Garces are all standing in a room together. One man weighs 280, another 290. The other two are 310 and 320, respectively. The "average" weight of the four men is 300, yet no one in the room is the average.

  • In reply to Mike Partipilo:

    You're confusing 'average' meaning the arithmetical 'mean" with 'average' in the sense 'of intermediate quality'. That is, in the middle between 'superior' and 'inferior'.

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    Jose Fernandez getting an MRI in LA.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:


  • In reply to John Arguello:

    What is in the water? Pitchers are dropping like flies. And the Cubs have 5 healthy ones. Maybe like the tortoise and hare, the race will go to the steady performer. :)

  • bet the marlins are happy they took their time with fernandez in the minors

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    Terry Forster has the highest all time batting average of ANYONE in baseball history with more then 70 career at bats. 397... !!

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