CINCINNATI -- Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro believes doing the right thing will pay off for him, both on and off the field. And doing the right thing on the field might simply mean to go back to who he really is at the plate.
Castro just completed his best homestand of the season while also entertaining a young fan from Ohio who had been severely injured after being hit in the head by a baseball in a little league game. Cameron Caldwell was airlifted to the hospital at the time in extremely serious condition. Cameron and his family got to meet Castro over the weekend at Wrigley Field, and they saw the best of him -- as a player and person.
“If you do something like that it feels good,” Castro said Monday before the Cubs played the Cincinnati Reds. “And it feels good at the plate, too.”
That latter statement isn’t something Castro has said often this year. By his own account, it’s been the most frustrating year of his career. His average has hovered around .240 for most of the season, and his expected power surge hasn’t materialized. But that makes a strong finish all the more important, both for his own confidence and that of a desperate fan base.
Castro was hitting .303 with two home runs and six RBI in the last nine home games before an 0-for-4 day on Sunday. Six of his 10 hits went for extra bases.
A further look inside the numbers shows an even more impressive streak, one that includes glimpses of the Castro that had 207 hits in 2011. According to ESPN Stats and Information, over the last nine games Castro’s line-drive percentage was 22.9. His percentage previously hovered around 17.8 for the season.
“Leadoff is better than batting eighth,” Castro said. “You see more pitches to hit. I feel pretty good hitting leadoff. Like I said two weeks ago, I’m trying to hit the ball as hard as I can. I don’t care where it goes.”
So he hit the ball hard more often than normal, but that’s not where it ends. That’s just the beginning.
“You hit three balls hard and got 0-for-4, sometimes that’s frustrating,” Castro said. “When I’m good, I hit the ball a lot more to right field. When I pull the ball, I make a lot of outs to third base.”
Over the last nine games at home, Castro hit the ball to right field a whopping 48.6 percent when he made contact. And that was pretty often, as he missed at just seven pitches of 61 he swung at. That 11.5 percent miss percentage is way down from his 21 percent season average. The league average is 22 percent. Castro hit .375 on those balls to right field.
His one day batting eighth a few weeks ago might have been his low point. He was openly upset about it and vowed to finish strong by “not thinking as much” at the plate. Those who know him best say it’s the right move.
“Obviously he was thinking too much,” Castro’s agent Paul Kinzer said. “When 88 mph fastballs were getting by him, something wasn’t right. I think he was thinking too much instead of doing what comes natural.”
Kinzer helped entertain the Caldwell family over the weekend. When Kinzer was handed an article about Caldwell that mentioned Castro was his favorite player, Castro immediately went into action. It's a positive in an otherwise strange year for the former All-Star.
Consider this statistic: According to Inside Edge scouting service, Castro is hitting .624 on hard hit balls. That’s well below the league average of .707. So on one hand he’s been unlucky. But on the other he hasn’t hit the ball hard enough to rank among the league leaders in hard-hit outs. So there’s good and bad in there to dissect.
“He swung the bat really well and ran into some bad luck, too," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Castro’s homestand.
“That’s probably the best he’s swung the bat all year long in a 10-day, two-week period.”
The combination of going back to leading off and back to being aggressive might have paid off. The most telling change is in the amount of pitches he’s seeing. Before the homestand, it was 3.89. Over the past nine games, he’s seeing only 3.24 per at-bat.
“I feel like myself again,” Castro said.
There’s little doubt leading off is where Castro likes to hit best. He’s a .305 career hitter there with an on-base percentage of .351. The irony is batting eighth hasn’t been all bad for him (.297/.392), but that success came very early in his career.
“I think he just locks in,” Kinzer said of his client leading off. “Mentally, he locks in better there. That’s what he does best. He sees it and hits it.”
Sveum knows this, too, even if it can’t be explained completely. Maybe the old Castro is back just in time for a strong finish. Cameron Caldwell isn’t the only fan or observer that hopes so.
“See the ball, hit the ball,” Kinzer said. “That’s what he does best.”