Is Starlin Castro For Real?

Starlin Castro Knee NYDN

Best image of the young Yankees season. (Photo: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The Yankees have an unusual Wednesday off day, as they wrapped up their five-day road trip on a 4-1 note, sweeping the World Champion Chicago Cubs (still feels weird writing that) and splitting a 2-game set with the previously first-place Cincinnati Reds (also feels weird writing that).

The New York Yankees have been on fire after a “terrible” 1-4 start, pacing the Majors in run differential, and are a half game behind the equally-hot Baltimore Orioles for the best record in the Majors. A lot of digital ink has been spilled about Large Adult Son Aaron Judge’s scorching start to the season, but comparatively Medium Adult Son Starlin Castro deserves some credit for his contribution to the team’s powerful offense thus far.

Starlin Castro was acquired in the 2015-16 offseason by the Yankees to fill the gaping void of suck at second base since perennial All-Star Robinson Cano left for greener pastures in the Pacific Northwest. Despite entering just his age-26 season, and presumably his prime, Castro had already compiled close to 4,000 MLB plate appearances for baseball writers in that offseason to pore over.

In six full seasons with the Cubbies, Castro had three All-Star seasons (2011, 2012, 2014) of about 3 fWAR each, as well as three lackluster seasons of about 3 fWAR combined. This Jekyll-and-Hyde track record led some to wonder which version of the young shortstop-turned-second baseman the Yankees would get. Would his solid finish to the 2015 season, which seemed to correspond to his move to the keystone, translate to 2016?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯. 2016 was more of the same from Castro, other than a small power surge, as he eclipsed the 20 HR mark for the first time in his career, albeit in a year where balls were flying out of ballparks left and right.

Enter 2017, and Castro has already amassed as much fWAR (1.1) in 31 games as he did all of last year. Castro is up to a .354/.393/.543 line on the young season, good for a cool 161 wRC+. Is this Castro finally tapping into his potential, or is there more at play here? Let’s delve further.

Early baseball is tricky because of the (repeat after me, class) small sample size caveat. One measure often looked at to see if a player has gotten “lucky” in the early going is BABIP. Castro, with a career .321 BABIP (which is above average!), is at a career-high .394, 40 points higher than his current batting average. For what it’s worth, Castro has always had a BABIP about 40 points higher than his corresponding batting average. However, a .394 BABIP is very much unsustainable, and may clue us in that Castro’s been a little lucky with some of his hits and/or faced some shoddy defense at times. Let’s see if his approach has changed this year.

K% and BB% are two useful ratios that tend to stabilize rather quickly, and in Castro’s case, should have stabilized already. As expected, Castro has seen an improvement in both, albeit slight. Castro is striking out in 16.3% of his PA this year, which is right around his career average, but an improvement of 3% from last year. On the flip side, Castro has almost been allergic to take a free pass in his career (4.8%), but he has “improved” to 5.9% this year, a full 2% higher than last year. Maybe something, maybe nothing.

A deeper look at his batted ball data reveal a few additional hints. As far as his GB%, LD%, and FB%, Castro has modestly improved across the board. GB produce a measly .220 wOBA, so limiting them as a hitter is key. He has reduced his GB% by about 3% from last year to 45.7%, close to a career-best. Conversely, his FB% is the highest since 2014, and LD% (which takes much longer to stabilize than the other two metrics) is currently a career-high at 22.9%. The outcomes on FB (and even more so, LD) are significantly better than GB, and Castro has improved those in the early going.

Castro has a scorching 14.6% infield hit percentage, significantly higher than his norm. Castro is no speed demon (career IFH% of 8.6%), but he seems to have benefited from a few extra infield hits to start the season. Either way, we’re talking about a matter of 3 hits or so; removing 3 hits still brings his average to “only” .331.

The quality of his contact (something else that takes a while to equilibrate) seems on par with last year and his career norms, translating into a Soft/Med/Hard Hit triple-slash line of 19%/50.5%/30.5%, which is almost exactly average across the board.

Finally, with his plate discipline, one would expect a swing-first guy like Castro to be above-average on most swing and contact rates…and you’d be right. Last year, he was at least average in most of the pertinent numbers, with improvements in most this year. Although his Swing% is about the same, he has cut his swings on pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) by 3% and swung 3% more inside the zone (Z-Swing%). With that increase in Z-Swing%, he is making improved contact within the zone (93.5%), which is top 10 in MLB, and improved his swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) by 2.5% from last year, to an above-average 9.0%.

TL;DR – Castro is having a great start to the year. He’s probably been a bit lucky, given his unsustainable BABIP, but he has shown some modest improvement in a lot of key categories, including walking a little more, striking out a little less, and swinging and making contact in the zone a little more. His power spike last year may prove to be no joke, with further increases in his fly ball and line drive percentages.

As he enters his age-27 season (his “old school” prime), it would not be unreasonable to expect Castro to have a career year. In fact, as it stands right now, he’s likely in line for his fourth All-Star appearance. The projection systems do peg him as about league average (e.g., 100 wRC+ from ZiPS) for the rest of the year, and I think most fans realize he won’t hit .354 all year, but he is on pace for a nice overall year from a position that had seen limited production after the loss of Cano. With the way the Yankees offense has been this year, he won’t be expected to carry the lineup, but simply lengthen it with his solid contribution.

All data obtained from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

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