It’s funny how quickly we – and by we, I mean us fans – can shift our attention from one top prospect to the next. I like to call this phenomenon the “Shiny New Toy Syndrome”, as we become enamored with the Next Big Thing coming up from the minors and slowly forget the prospects we were falling for a week earlier. Prospects are showered with attention when they reach the majors and their performance is analyzed from 10 different angles. But once those players become established, they fall off the radar — and our attention shifts to the next big prospect. In many ways, prospects are like Christmas presents: anticipation builds until Christmas morning arrives; but within two weeks, the presents are forgotten and tossed in the toy bucket with everything else.
Before the 2010 season began, Castro was the top prospect in the Cubs’ system and one of the top 15 in baseball. He started the season in Double-A, but after tearing through the league with a .367/.413/.560 line through 26 games, the Cubs decided they’d had enough of Ryan Theriot’s defense at shortstop and brought Castro up. The then-20-year-old entered with a bang: he hit a three-run homer in his first at bat, hit a triple later that game and drove in six runs. All eyes were on Chicago.
Castro ended the 2010 season with a very impressive line for a young shortstop. He was roughly league average on offense (.325 wOBA) and slightly below league average on defense (-2.1 UZR). So far in 2011, Castro has blown the doors off the joint, posting a .375/.398/.513 line and a .405 wOBA. Such a fast start is obviously unsustainable, but right now Castro is one of the top-30 offensive players in baseball (as measured by wOBA) and tied for 11th in the majors in WAR. Not bad for a 21-year-old shortstop.
While Castro’s early season streak has been fueled by a .392 BABIP, that might not be as outrageous as you think. Not many players can post a BABIP that high for an entire season, but Castro is a speedy runner who hits a high percentage of balls on the ground. Like Ichiro, we can expect him to consistently post an above-average BABIP. Last season, he hit 20% of his balls for line drives and 51% for ground balls while posting a .346 BABIP. This season he’s only increased those numbers: Castro currently has a 24% line drive rate and a 53% ground ball rate. That’s a relatively high line drive rate, which goes to show how much solid contact Castro is making right now. I wouldn’t expect him to continue to post a .392 BABIP, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he ends the season with a BABIP in the .350 range.
And there have been plenty of other good signs from Castro’s hot start. He’s only striking out in 6% of his plate appearances, which is down from last season’s 15%. While it’s early in the season and the small-sample caveat applies, strikeout rates are one of the first statistics to stabilize, taking only ~150 plate appearances to become reliable. Castro is currently at 83 plate appearances, and his plate discipline suggest this change may have something more to it than small-sample-size variance.
Castro is a free-swinger, taking a cut at about 4% more pitches than league average, but he’s improved his pitch recognition from last season. In 2010, Castro was swinging at 32% of pitches outside the zone (3% worse than average), and this season he’s cut that down to 29.5%. While not a huge change, it’s a small step in the right direction and gives hope that Castro might learn to increase his low walk rate (3.6% BB%) going forward.
Also, when he swings, Castro is making contact with pitches at a much higher rate than before. Last season Castro made contact on 75% of pitches outside the zone and 92% of pitches inside the zone, and this season he’s improved those numbers to 84% outside the zone and 96% inside the zone. His overall contact percentage is 92.5% — eighth best in the major leagues — and he’s swinging and missing on fewer pitches this season (3.6% swinging strike rate). For a hitter who relies on putting the ball in play and using his speed to leg out hits, this is exactly what you’d like to see.
Some of these numbers will likely regress as the sample sizes grow larger, but regardless, these are really good signs and Cub fans have reason to be excited. Castro might not have a grip on our attention like he did a year ago, but he’s no less exciting of a player now than he was then. He’s one of the brightest young stars in baseball (I swear, no pun intended), and his future is looking up.