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.