Lost in the hoopla over the weekend at Wrigley Field was the fact that Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum gave shortstop Starlin Castro his second day off this season and intimated it may not be his last.
It's significant because it's further confirmation of Sveum's change of heart on this subject. Previous to Castro's first day off, on June 25, Sveum had always maintained that his stars would play every day.
"I'm old school that way," he said in spring training. "If you have players that good, going into the season you want consistency and if the consistency is there then those guys play 162 games. That's why they get paid a lot of money and they're one of the best in baseball at their job. The one thing you learn, the people that are behind them, are behind them for a reason."
Obviously, Castro isn't having the kind of the year anyone would have predicted, hitting just .245 with seven home runs and 31 runs batted in going into Tuesday night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies. The issue here isn't whether Sunday's day-off is a good idea but if Castro, or others like Anthony Rizzo, should have more of them.
On June 25 Castro was hitting a season-low .228. At the All-Star break in mid-July he was back up to .243. He raised his batting average 15 points from his day-off until the break and he didn't commit an error. Considering it's the first time he sat since 2011, we're dealing with a small sample size to draw conclusions from. We just don't know for sure -- and really never will -- if it helped him that much.
However, it doesn't take a baseball expert to realize a day off can only help and not harm. Maybe it's meaningless for some players. Maybe it actually does nothing to help a player in his prime who can physically handle 162 games. But then again, this isn’t about the physical break a day off provides for Castro. It’s about the mental one.
Castro plays a demanding position and his athleticism puts a lot of demands on him. Could he be sharper if he sat a few more times during the season? If he sat once a month that would be six games missed, twice a month means 12. Maybe the ideal number is somewhere in between. The bottom line is if there was ever a player you could look at and say "he might need a breather," it's Castro.
Sveum has never really explained why he believes it’s best to play his top guys 162 games -- he does come from an era when they played more -- other than the obvious notion they will produce more than a backup. But that may not be the case if they are mentally drained.
"When you're thinking about winning the division by one game or getting in the wild card by one game and give those guys too many days off and you lose that one game (it's not good)," Sveum said in March. "That's the mentality that goes into it. Guys play the game, if they're not hurt they play.”
He should have added, "And if they're not struggling, they play."
What's curious about Sveum's statement is the Cubs aren't winning or losing anything by one game, so why not try a different schedule for Castro going into this season? What if occasional rest was the key to unlocking his potential? It might sound silly, but this is the time to find out things about your players so when the games really count from July-September, Sveum is armed with what his top players need to succeed.
In any case, the strategy for Rizzo and Castro changed as they began to struggle and now we'll see what a second off-day does for the Cubs much maligned shortstop.
If he takes off again then Sveum might have a trend on his hands and a new strategy heading into 2014.