CHICAGO -- There seems to be a perception among Chicago Cubs fans that shortstop Starlin Castro endures an unfair amount of criticism, especially when compared to another Cubs cornerstone, first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
It's true. At least part of it is. Castro does receive a lot of criticism, probably more than Rizzo. But he deserves it.
Contrary to what you might think, this isn't so much another attack on Castro as it is a defense of Rizzo. His year -- despite an 0-for-6 on Thursday -- isn't as bad as many are making it out to be while at the same time there are answers to his struggles. Castro is more perplexing.
Let's start with Rizzo.
Anyone who follows the Cubs is aware of his abysmal batting average. It's down to .229 after Thursday's performance. It stinks. There's no question if he wants to be a star player in this league it needs to be higher. Colleague Jon Greenberg documented his struggles in a recent column, but for our purposes we don't need the details, we just know he's not getting enough base-hits. But is Rizzo contributing? Is he showing promise as a player in his first full season?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Despite his poor average, and despite little protection in the lineup, Rizzo has walked 60 times. That's good for seventh in the National League. He ranks 11th in home runs with 20 and has 68 runs batted in, tied for 13th. None of those numbers is going to win him the MVP award or get him to an All-Star game but they aren't worthy of the panic which seems to accompany talk of his future. If his powers numbers continue to improve yet he's a low batting average kind of guy he'll still be very valuable. That's the worst case scenario.
But then there's his .173 batting average with men in scoring position. That's beyond awful. With men on base he should be getting pitches to hit and he's not doing much with them. Obviously, that statistic is partly a product of his overall poor average but here's the thing: so what? That stat will change from year to year and even if it doesn't, it's way too early to know what kind of a hitter he will be over time with men in scoring position. All-Star Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is hitting .442 this year with men in scoring position. Last season he hit .219. And Freeman is more established than Rizzo. When people say Rizzo has regressed, what exactly has he regressed from? A half-season in the majors? He doesn't have a large enough base-line from which to make judgments. Maybe next year, but not now, not yet.
That's not the case with Castro. This is his fourth year with the Cubs. There's little doubt he's still developing considering he's only 23 years old. But that doesn't mean he isn't above criticism and it certainly means there is a baseline from which to judge. So what is Castro contributing? Where is the promise which Rizzo is at least showing in some areas?
He has a .240 batting average with seven home runs and 32 runs batted in. That's in 126 games played. Donnie Murphy has eight home runs in 16 games. Castro leads the National League in errors with 16, and though there is no statistic for mental gaffes, anyone who's watched the Cubs knows he might lead the league there too. He stole 25 bases last year, but he's 8-for-13 this season after getting caught twice on Thursday. Nearly nothing has gone right, save some highlight plays at shortstop. But he's offset those with the mental gaffes and miscues on routine plays.
That doesn't mean he's not talented and it doesn't mean he can't rebound after his first regression since making it to the major leagues and becoming a two-time All-Star. But even with a positive outlook, there is no guarantee with Castro. The signs with Rizzo might be there but Castro looks miles away -- at least right now he does.
Let's casually examine Castro at the plate. Except for the occasional unique hitter -- Dale Sveum used Vladimir Guerrero an example -- there really should be no downside to Castro becoming a more patient batter. Seeing more pitches -- as long as he's not letting all the good ones go by -- isn't a bad thing. It should pay off in the form of more walks and eventually better pitches to hit. That's the theory at least. But Castro is seeing the most pitches in his career per plate appearance this season and his numbers have plummeted. His on-base percentage is no better and his average is the lowest of his career. We can dissect the reasons for this, and maybe he needs to simply go back to being more aggressive, but it's still perplexing. Sveum was asked if being more patient at the plate has been the right thing for Castro.
"Logically, yeah," he responded. "I think patience is always going to (win) out over the other. But sometimes it takes a process to be patient."
In other words, understanding when to be aggressive in the zone and when to be patient outside of it is a developing thing for a young player and Castro is stuck in the middle right now.
Here's another perplexing one: Most hitters who are maturing will start using the entire field. Castro goes to right as much as anyone in the game. For example, according to ESPN Stats and Information he divides his outs to the outfield almost identically, about 33 percent to left, center and right. The league average for outs from a right-handed hitter to right field is 26 percent. So he goes to right field, except he simply makes outs in that direction instead of getting hits. He does make 5 percent more outs on line drives to right field than the league average so maybe he's been unlucky in that direction this year, and maybe those start falling next season, which could end this discussion. At least he's not just some flashy young player trying to pull everything.
So again, when looked at on paper, Castro should be having more success but he's not. A right-handed hitter becoming more patient and spraying the ball to right should show some results. So what's the answer with him? If hitting coach James Rowson knew or Sveum or the front office then maybe he could start to turn it around. Castro's only answer is to go back to being more aggressive. He said as much this week. And if that brings back the old Castro, then that's great, because the guy who became the youngest player in history to lead the NL in hits with 207 in 2011 can be an offensive force.
Rizzo has had other problems as well. Early in the season -- and even some lately -- he's had some issues in the field, but based on this year, there is hope to Rizzo's struggles while Castro continues to be a head scratcher. The point is, if you're going to worry about the Cubs young stars then save most of it for their shortstop.