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Starlin Castro on his first-half struggles: 'It's not me'

After a dismal first half of the season, Starlin Castro is confident his hitting will improve soon. Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports

It has not been a good year for Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro. That might be the understatement of the season. We’ll get to the ugly numbers in a moment, but it doesn’t take a page of statistics to realize he’s simply not striking the ball well.

Castro is hopeful his dismal first half can be replaced with an extraordinary second half. There’s work being done behind the scenes, and the next 71 games will tell us if something can be salvaged in 2015.

"I know my talent," Castro said over the weekend. "I know what I can do. I know I can do a lot. Have to forget about the first half."

He might want to forget about the first four days of the second half as well. Castro is 2 for 17 with five strikeouts, but has shown a few good signs. He drove a ball to deep center field in Monday’s 5-4 loss to the Reds, allowing a runner to tag up and get to third base. Before that, he took two balls to right in Atlanta, but in between there were those ground outs he’s become known for. We saw a whole first half of them as his ratio to fly balls is the highest of his career, 1.50. He's hit a total of 65 ground balls to short, three have gone for infield hits.

"He has a high ground ball rate this year, and a lot of it is the contact point on the ball away," hitting coach John Mallee said. "He’s making contact too far out in front. His front hip and shoulder are pulling off a bit and causing him to lose posture and reach and make contact in front."

Castro wouldn’t be the first hitter to be "opening up." It happens. It’s the length of the "slump" that has the Cubs -- and Castro -- perplexed.

"My front hip is open a little bit," Castro said. "That’s what I’m working on. Watching the video from last year. Trying to stay closed and think middle all the way."

Mallee added: "It happens to a lot of guys, but he’s been prolonged into it."

Some might wonder how April (.325/.349) went so well for Castro, but Mallee indicated even back then he was having some mechanical problems that were masked by some good fortune. Things have caught up to Castro over the last couple of months and the numbers aren’t pretty.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, going into Tuesday night’s game against the Reds, here are some of Castro’s offensive rankings this season. The numbers would be the worst of the three-time all-star’s career if the season ended today.

Castro’s soft hit rate is 49.7 percent, according to Inside Edge Scouting Service, which ranks 154th out of 160. The league average is 38.3 percent. Conversely, his hard rate is 10.6 percent, 143rd in the league. And finally his line drive rate is 13.1 percent which is third worst among qualified hitters.

"It’s not me," Castro said. "The first half is not me."

The one bright spot has come in the more tense moments of the game. In the ninth inning or later Castro is hitting .364 (16 for 44) this year, including 6 for 10 in extra innings. In innings 1-8 he’s hitting .224. It’s not much, but at least there are those game-winning hits he had earlier this season.

"I’ve been through this before," Castro said. "You remember 2013. I think that was worse. Now, not even close. Just keep my head up. Keep grinding and try to do my best every day."

Castro’s numbers are worse than 2013, but he must feel better at the plate to say those things. Or maybe he’s just trying to stay positive. Mallee says he’s putting the work in.

"He’s very studious and really understands his swing," Mallee said. "You don’t have that much success if you don’t know what you’re doing. We’re doing different drills to get his energy and momentum going towards the plate.

"He gets disappointed because he feels he’s letting the team down. But we’re all in it with him."

There was a time when trade talk regarding Castro was a testament to his abilities and team-friendly contract, but now that has even died down. And his legion of supporters among Cubs fans is dwindling. There was always a reason to defend Castro, and after a hot April it seemed like the narrative about needing to be on a good team was coming true. But even with talent around him Castro hasn’t been able to sustain much on offense. The Cubs have little choice but to hope he comes out of it.

"You know how baseball is," he said wrapping up the interview. "It’s up and down. I have to keep grinding it out."