Readjustment: Castro, Rizzo and the 2014 step forward

Note: There’s a lot more to this that will be rolling in as the weeks progress. I concentrated on pitch counts here but pitch recognition is big part of what I address in the following column as well. I’m working on it.

Let’s consider these two things: 1. Major League Baseball as currently constructed has the most thorough and arduous culling process of all the major sports. It’s rare that a teenager or a player in his early 20’s becomes a consistent and reliable contributor for his team. There’s a mountain of developmental hurdles in each players’ path as they climb the minors en route to the show. There are bad major leaguers but there are no bad baseball players at the highest level. 2. As an extension of 1, the average major league hitter can hit the baseball hard under the right circumstances.

Starlin Castro is having a bounce back season at the age of 24. As of writing he has a .285/.334/.430 slash line and is on pace to set a career high in walks later this month. In the eye test he also appears to be hitting the ball with more authority as he’s been driving the ball into the gaps with more regularity.

On the surface Anthony Rizzo had a poor season in 2013. He slashed .233/.323/.419 and he struggled mightily against LHP to the tune of a .182 average and a .625 OPS. He’s turned that around in 2014. Rizzo has emerged as one of the best hitters in the National League, punishing rigties and lefties alike (he’s slashing .309/.411/.528 against lefties this year) en route to an All Star selection.

Like the average major leaguer both hitters have the ability to hit the ball hard. Rizzo has more power in his game but Castro can put a charge into the ball as well. Both players have seen an increase in their line drive percentage this year but that begs a few different questions I will attempt to answer here.

The culling process I described in the first paragraph doesn’t ever stop. Major League pitching will constantly adjust to a hitter’s approach in an attempt to exploit any kind of weakness a player has. The scouting is much better at the highest level as well so pitchers will find what hitters do poorly. The end game becomes one about execution. It’s one thing to know what sequence will work, it’s another one to execute it consistently.

This type of adjustment works both ways, so when a young player readjusts to what the league is doing to them it’s something to be excited about. Let’s focus on Rizzo here first since his readjustment has been the easiest to see with the naked eye.

Anthony Rizzo

If I were to ask you what Rizzo is doing differently in 2014 the likely answer most people would come up with is an ability to hit left handed pitching. That’s a big part of it, but let’s focus in on the how.  In 2013 Rizzo had a plate appearance end after a 1-1 count 64 times. He hit .172 with a .250 SLG in those plate appearances.

Here is where pitchers attacked Rizzo in 2013:


So far in 2014 Rizzo has seen a plate appearance end on a 1-1 count 37 times. He’s hitting .250 with a .444 SLG in those plate appearances.  Here is where pitchers are attacking Rizzo in 2014:


In 2013 pitchers were comfortable attacking Rizzo inside and out. There was a skew down and away from Rizzo but pitchers felt comfortable busting him inside as well. The main difference in the zone profiles is what Rizzo is swinging at.

Let’s compare those zone charts again, but let’s look at swing rate. Here’s 2013:


Rizzo has a specific spot away from his inner half that he was fond of in 2013, but what’s more interesting are the inside pitches that he swung at. Of the 41 pitches Rizzo saw in off the plate in 1-1 counts Rizzo swung at 22 of them. Let’s take a look at 2014:


We have anecdotal and statistical evidence that documents how Rizzo has scooted closer to the plate. Rizzo has been hit by 12 pitches in 2014 which is double his career high of 6 that he set last year.  If we expand out our zone profile and look at the pitches Rizzo swings at we see another marked difference. Here he is in 2013:


And here he is in 2014:


Pitchers are weary of pitching Rizzo in for fear of hitting him. You can see a marked difference high and tight where Rizzo has drastically cut down on the pitches he’s swinging at that are off the plate. It’s shrunk the zone in a tangible way, enabling Rizzo to key in on specific parts of the zone and simplifying the decision making process when at bat. This magnifies itself in the 1-1 count where the complexion of an at bat can dramatically change with one pitch. The end results have been stark. Rizzo is hitting .282/.380/.508 after 1-1 counts in 2014. Compare that to the .216/.296/.376 line he put up after 1-1 counts in 2013 and there’s a big time difference for his improvement.

Starlin Castro

Castro’s case is a bit different. He was an experiment in player development in 2013 as the Cubs tried to alter Castro’s approach to increase his walks workload. It had disastrous results. We can hypothesize that Castro was more passive at the plate in 2013 and has gained selective aggressiveness in 2014.

If we look at his 2013 season by pitch count data and contrast that to his 2014 season it’s difficult to pick up where he’s made improvements. The line that jumped at me the most, however, was what he’s done in counts that have zero balls.

In 2013 Castro hit .241/.256/.337 in 204 plate appearances that ended with zero balls. In 2014 his slash is .350/.359/.531 in 145 plate appearances. Castro is particularly handling 0-2 counts better; in 2013 Castro hit .116 in 69 Plate Appearances in 0-2 counts. In 2014 he’s hitting .231 with a .410 SLG in 40 plate appearances in 0-2 counts

Castro has made an adjustment on pitches down and away from him and it’s starker than Rizzo’s. In 2013 Castro was vulnerable to low and outside pitches. Here’s what he did low and away in 2013:


And here’s what he’s doing low and away in 2014.


It’s not a good zone for him, it’s clearly the hole in his plate coverage and it still exists today. The difference now is that he’s not swinging at the junke away from his happy zone. Here’s Castro’s swing tendencies (with zero balls) in 2013:


You’ll notice a bloc of 25%+ numbers down and away, particularly in the areas where he hit .217, .091, and .119 in 2013 respectively. Here’s his swing tendencies in zero ball counts in 2014.


Castro is still swing prone in the sector just below the strike zone away but the 25% and 30% swing rates down and away from 2013 are replaced by 6% and 10% swing rates. Essentially Castro has become more selective this year, specifically in counts where he is working with zero balls.

Selectivity can manifest itself in many different ways, it doesn’t always boil down to walks. It would appear that Castro has an improved understanding of not just the strikezone, but his personal hitting zone and is refining his approach to mitigate what pitchers are trying to do to him. To return to the original hypothesis, it’s not fair to say Castro has been more aggressive in this counts, perhaps the way to phrase this is that Castro has replaced passiveness with selectivity.

Hard hit ball data provides us a quick reference tool for which we can say x is happening with this degree of regularity. Perhaps from here on out we should shift our focus to what players are doing to get into favorable situations. Again, given the right circumstances major league hitters (with rare exception) can hit the ball very hard; it’s part of the culling process. Castro can do it and Rizzo can do it. The key differences for both of them in 2014 has been pitch selectivity.

Filed under: Analysis

Tags: Anthony Rizzo, mlb, Starlin Castro


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  • Great job Mauricio and this piece comes at the same time David Schoenfield has a great article on Rizzo.

    "The exciting thing is he's still young enough to improve. Maybe you've moved on to Baez and Bryant. But the best Cubs hitter for the next six years? Don't be surprised if it's Rizzo."

    That's a great point that I kind of ignored. Rizzo could be a 40+ HR MVP candidate in the coming years. I know the prospects have that ceiling but Rizzo has battled through the learning curve that the young kids have yet to pass.

  • Wow, this is just a brilliant and extremely informative article.
    Thank you.

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    I always feel pessimistic after a couple of losses. So what this means to me today is that 2105 will be a year for the young players to learn and adjust. Also known as, another sub-.500 season. But hopefully I'll be in a more positive mood soon. Great article, though.

  • In reply to Cubs Win 009:

    Of course that means waiting another 95 years - won't be around to see it.

  • In reply to Letsplay2:

    Sorry, just kidding - you said year 2105, I'm sure you meant 2015.

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    Can anyone please explain why Castro's WAR is so low? He is 1.5 this year while Peralta is a 4.2.

    Should we just reject these indepth stats an go with the eye test or is there reason not to drink the Castro kool-aid?

    I think WAR is too low but stats dont lie.

  • In reply to Daniel Rosenberg:

    His fWAR is 2.5 (5.0 oWAR/2.7 dWAR) - The Fangraphs formula seems to be much more consistent with reality. BR is good for other stat analysis but not great at value in my opinion. The BR numbers hurt him mostly in fielding (-7) compared to Fangraphs (-2.9) for Castro. Fangraphs also has him at 23.1 Runs Above Replacement (Batting + Fielding + Base Running + Replacement + Positional) compared to 18 RAR at BR.

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    I'm not as baseball savvy as alot of you which is why I don't post much. But I read everyday and learn alot.
    My question about Castro is, wouldn't it be better for the team if he was hitting #2 with his ability to get on base? Seems like we get alot of 1 run home runs.

  • In reply to cb56:

    He may get there next yr depending on Baez' progress. Could be Coglan , then AA and Castro would drop to 5or 6. Castro could replace AA but AA seems to hit better as #2 then he does elsewhere.

  • Nice work. Good to see the improvements!

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    Excellent article!

    Rizzo' turn around has been amazing. At times last season he looked as if he was lost. I never see that look this year. I agree, he's turned himself into one of the best hitters in the league. The FO's belief in him and patience has paid off big time.

  • In reply to Aggravated Battery:

    And the improvement against lefties has been even more evident.

    With his contact rate and with his walk rate he could very well end up being a #2 hitter, but one with 30+ HR potential in front of Baez, Soler, Bryant and Castro.

    If you think he scores a lot of runs now,.....

  • So - one way in interpreting this change for the better - especially so for Castro - is that to view last year's experiment with him as a short-term falure (and extremely painful to watch for those of us who like the kid), but leading to longer-term success.

    Nice stuff Mauricio - If by having to watch Castro struggle last season while the adjustments were getting ingrained into him - we gain several years of a >0.280 BA hitter with a OBP >0.340 with the potential to pop 15-20 HR,.... It might just have been worth it.

  • The biggest improvement both of them have made this year is their Leadership. The offensive turnaround is great, but both have really stepped up as Leaders.

    The really exciting part is neither has hit their ceiling yet and they've already been to the AS game.

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