This may be unwise to admit in this setting, but I often forget that Starlin Castro still plays baseball in the major leagues. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that his most recent club, the Miami Marlins, is not a team one is likely to seek out when scrolling through MLB.TV options on their favorite team’s off day. The other is that the team he broke into the majors with, the Chicago Cubs, were another woeful franchise for most of his time there. Castro joined the Cubs in 2010, and virtually all of the most recognizable actors from those early-decade Cubs teams have since left the game. The careers of Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, Darwin Barney, Geovany Soto and many others are long gone. It has been so long since I have watched any of them, and it is so rare that I watch Castro, so my subconscious brain often assumes he’s gone too.
Castro, of course, is very much an active player, and the ironic twist here is that he is quietly inching toward a coveted milestone that could immortalize him next to some of the greatest players in history. In 2019, his age-29 season, Castro collected 172 hits, the third-highest single-season total he’s ever put together. That gives him a career hit total of 1,617, making him one of just 35 players to ever reach 1,600 hits before turning 30. That’s nearly as exclusive a group as the famous 3,000-hit club, which includes just 32 players. Among all active players, Castro is 27th in career hits. He’s younger than every player ahead of him.
Now, Castro isn’t necessarily the most likely active player to reach 3,000 hits — more on that later — but it at least seems possible, and I’m not the first to point this out. Late in the 2018 season, Matt Provenzano wrote about his improbable chase of the milestone over at Beyond The Box Score, and pertinently, a couple of reasons why we probably shouldn’t root for him to actually reach it. Castro was alleged to have sexually assaulted a woman in 2012, though no charges were ever filed, and his attorneys denied the accusations. Little has been mentioned about the incident in the years since, but it could be a topic of conversation if serious thought is given to Castro’s Hall of Fame case, which, if he reaches 3,000 hits, would likely be one of the most hotly contested ones in history.
How much of a chance does he actually have in reaching 3,000 hits? After doing some projections based on Castro’s historical comps, Provenzano estimated in the above article that he might have something like a 20-25% chance of reaching that number. With an extra year of data since that piece ran providing his largest hit total since 2012, perhaps that improves a bit. Here’s the aforementioned list of 35 players with 1,600 hits before turning 30, along with whether they reached 3,000 hits and whether they made the Hall of Fame:
|Player||Pre-30 hit total||3,000 hits?||HoF?|
This table is bad news for Castro. Getting to 1,600 hits before age 30 is actually more predictive of a player reaching the Hall of Fame than it is of them reaching 3,000 hits. Of the 35 players listed here, 26 are in the Hall of Fame, while two more are future locks (Pujols and Cabrera) and a third would be a lock if not for PED issues (Rodriguez). Meanwhile, just nine of the 35 actually succeeded in reaching 3,000 hits.
It turns out that reaching 3,000 hits has less to do with whatever start a player has in their 20s and more to do with how consistent they are in their 30s, and for how long. That makes intuitive sense with counting stat milestones as lofty as 3,000 hits, but the numbers behind it are still eye-opening. The average hit totals of the 3,000 hit club members in their 20s is 1,483 — 134 hits fewer than Castro has. The average hit totals of those players in their 30s, however, is 1,590.
This is partially due to the fact that some of these players only played seven or eight years in their 20s (or, in Ichiro’s case, three), but most played the entire decade of their 30s. Still though, one would typically expect a player’s best years to come in his 20s. While the quantity of active years in their 20s might not match those in their 30s, the quality of those 20s should still win out. But in this case, it is actually much easier to overcome a slow start in one’s 20s and still reach 3,000 hits than it is to get away with a weaker 30s. Just four of the 32 3,000-hit club members compiled fewer than 1,300 hits in their 30s, while nine had fewer than 1,300 hits in their 20s. Further, players with 3,000 hits played an average of just over two years after hitting 40. A milestone like this isn’t just aided by playing a long time — it is necessitated by it, to a degree that almost nullifies any speculation about what a player is “on pace for” during their careers.
Any hypothetical milestone chase by Castro, then, will obviously depend on his ability to not only stick around in the majors for a long time, but to continue receiving significant playing time. And that last part is currently in some jeopardy. In October, Miami officially declined to pick up his $16 million club option for 2020, making Castro a free agent for the first time in his 10-year career. Even though the Marlins have wound up being surprisingly inclined to hand money to low-risk players this offseason, Castro’s price tag was deemed too high, and that thrusts him into a somewhat crowded second base market.
The list of available players at the keystone position is a long one, and it got even longer after the non-tender deadline. Cesar Hernandez, Jonathan Schoop, and Brian Dozier could all command similar deals to Castro, while others like Scooter Gennett, Eric Sogard, Brock Holt, and Tim Beckham would all be interesting plays as well.
Castro has tons of competition for a job, and given his recent performances, it may be difficult for him to stand out. Once considered one of the more promising young hitters in the game, Castro’s five most recent seasons have paled in comparison to his first five. By 24, he had already turned in a pair of 3-win seasons and another 2.7-WAR year, thanks to an above-average bat and a strong glove at shortstop. Then, after six years in Chicago, he was traded to the Yankees for Adam Warren. He moved over to second base in New York, where he struggled defensively but remained an average hitter at the plate, compiling a 101 wRC+ and 3.2 WAR in two seasons. He was traded again after that, this time for a much bigger name — Giancarlo Stanton, who was being shipped over from Miami for Castro and two prospects.
Castro more or less cemented the kind of player that he is while in Miami: Someone who can be an average-to-slightly-above hitter if his BABIP luck plays in his favor, and a slightly-below-average hitter when it doesn’t. He hit .270/.300/.436 for a 91 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR in 2019, a year after hitting .278/.329/.400 for a 101 wRC+ and 2.3 WAR. Players with Castro’s offensive profile will always rely somewhat on batted ball fortune, and sure enough, his BABIP fell from .330 in 2018 to .293 in 2019.
But that wasn’t the only difference. His walk rate also dropped from 7.4% to 4.1%, and his career 5.0 BB% tells us the former was likely the outlier. Meanwhile, his power improved a bit as he turned in career-highs in homers (22) and ISO (.165). Your mileage could vary as to how much stock to place in those categories in 2019 — on one hand, the juiced ball benefited hitters like Castro as much as anyone, but on the other, setting career power highs in Marlins Park is no easy accomplishment regardless of ball environment.
Castro’s results have been more or less consistent over the past few years, but the process through which he has achieved them has changed slightly. His distribution of line drives, grounders, and flies remains in line with his career averages, but over the past couple of seasons, we’ve seen an increased emphasis on pulling the ball, which may be related to him suddenly experiencing an uptick in hard contact.
Judging from the pull rate and his launch angle — a career-high 10.9 degrees in 2019 — it seems that adding power was a purposeful choice by Castro this season. That, combined with improved second base defense in his two years in Miami, could raise teams’ interest in the 29-year-old.
The question is whether his new team sees him as a starter or a platoon/bench player. Castro has always been an everyday player, playing 162 games for a second time in his career last year, and never suiting up for fewer than 112 in a season. That durability and track record should assist in his free agent case, but there is some evidence to suggest he could used more efficiently. He fell victim to some grim lefty-righty splits in 2019, compiling a 129 wRC+ against left-handers and just a 78 wRC+ against righties. He’s heavily favored southpaws throughout his career, which means a contending team may benefit from combining him with a left-handed-swinging second baseman — such as, say, Brandon Lowe in Tampa Bay.
Signing with a contender is reportedly a goal of Castro’s, but it wouldn’t guarantee that he plays every day, the way he has for the first 10 seasons of his career. If he prioritized an everyday job, he could also sign somewhere like Detroit, where he’d be all but guaranteed 162 starts a year if he wants them, but he would likely toil in obscurity until the contract runs out again, just like he has for the last two seasons. Such a situation would give him the freedom to continue racking up hits with abandon, and perhaps that would be enough to convince teams on a year-to-year basis that he is worth dedicating serious playing time to.
Where he ends up going could be telling of not only how the industry sees players like Castro, but also of how much importance he places in his own unlikely milestone chase. Signing with a contender to take a part-time role would likely eliminate whatever chance he has at reaching 3,000 hits, but in the right platoon/coaching situation, it could potentially make him a better player, too. Ironically, Castro’s best chance at achieving the most career longevity possible might involve him converting to a part-time role. Less than 55% of the way to that lofty milestone, it’s still far too early for the rest of us to begin taking this chase seriously. But Castro very well might. And if he does, then every decision from this point forward counts.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.