The Cubs made plenty of progress this season and it’s no accident that it coincided with the growth of their shortstop, Starlin Castro. It seems the Cubs are quite pleased with his maturation on and off the field.
“I think he’s grown up, obviously,” Renteria said. “He took a lot upon himself. I think as the season progressed, he was certainly more accountable to himself and his teammates. “
Renteria deserves a of credit here. After a down season in which his focus and work ethic were questioned, Renteria entered the situation with an open mind.
“I didn’t and I don’t usually come into any situation with any preconceived idea,” he said. “I think I’ve learned over time that you can take all the things that people say about others, and there’s a danger of defining who they are before you get a chance to get to know them yourself.”
We tend to get frustrated and impatient with a player’s maturation process but there is no set timetable for growth. The talented players from Latin America are brought here when they are 15-16. They are given a lot of money and asked to grow up with the whole baseball world watching. People are different. Some, like Arismendy Alcantara, grow up quickly. So much so that it was never really a question with him. We’ve seen Jorge Soler grow up right before our eyes. Other players, like Alfonso Soriano, gain wisdom over the course of their MLB career.
“He worked very, very hard to overcome a lot of real and/or perceived deficits in his game…. He (Castro) also became, as far as I could tell in my observations, a much better teammate. I think everybody did start gravitating to him. I think he ended up reacquainting himself with his teammates in a good way.”
Renteria’s words are revealing. The words “perceived deficits” hints that there are things we have gotten wrong about Castro over the past couple of years, yet a “much better” teammate indicates there was at least some truth behind the concerns. While we can’t know for certain what kind of teammate Castro was, we can at least imply that it was less than ideal.
What we can see is how he has evolved as a player to draw clues.
“He drove in key runs for us in the season. His approaches improved. I know people talked about the automatic swinging in 3-1 counts or automatic swinging in certain situations. I thought he really did improve upon those things and made himself a better hitter and was very conscientious about his approaches.”
Castro’s switch in focus from trying to be a 200 hit guy to a player who was more willing to work counts and be more of a situational hitter suggests an evolution from a player who cared more about his own numbers to one that cared more about how his performance affected the performance of his team.
While we aren’t big fans of the RBI statistic, it is a change in his mindset and it has been reflected in his numbers. Castro improved his walk rate from 4.3% to 6.2% and there is still room for growth there. He is swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, dropping from 35% to about 30% over the past 2 years.
It’s most interesting to me, however, that he became more patient when the game was on the line, walking 8.6% of the time in high leverage situations, suggesting perhaps that he is beginning to trust his teammates to come through if he doesn’t get pitches to hit. He also hit .306 and slugged .500, which may tell us that he has focused more on waiting for pitches he can drive rather than settling for singles, or worse, getting himself out. It’s a small sample size, of course, when we are talking about statistics but we can at least be happy with the more focused, mature approach in high leverage situations.
His manager noticed.
“(Castro) held his own hitting behind Rizzo this year,” Renteria said. “He did a nice job, but Soler slid in there pretty well in the fourth spot. You can see Starlin hitting anywhere from second through sixth, depending on who is in the lineup.”
It’s praise but it is also a strong hint that while they were pleased with Castro’s performance, his role may change as the Cubs bring in more talent. I think there is a good possibility that he ends up at either extreme of that 2-6 slot rather than at 3, 4, or 5. The old Castro may have balked and sulked about that. The new Castro seems ready to go with the flow,
“Wherever they put me, I can show I can help the team and bring RBIs. Whatever spot (manager Rick Renteria) puts me, I’ll try to do my job.”
Still just 24, Castro is growing up. That means being more accessible to his teammates. It also mean sacrificing himself for the team. Whether that means taking a walk or being willing to hit lower in the order; Castro is beginning to see the big picture and that he is but one part of it.
“We see a lot of good things in here. Those kids, those guys we brought in here, we’re together, we have communication. We can show people next year we can fight, we can play baseball for winning. I think we’re pretty close.”
We, we, we instead of me, me, me. That is no accident and it is more than just lip service. Castro has begun to show it on the field.
Castro is right when he says, “we’re getting pretty close”. He’s talking about the team, of course, but this time it would have been perfectly okay if he were referring to himself as well.
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