Starlin Castro finding the right fixes

CHICAGO -- Friday wasn’t Starlin Castro's first hitless game of the season, but it was the first time he didn’t feel right at the plate.

“Something felt off,” Castro said after Saturday’s 5-2 victory over the Miami Marlins. “So I looked at the tape and saw I was opening my hips too soon. Took early (batting practice) and fixed it.”

It appeared to work, as Castro rebounded from Friday’s 0-for-5, three strikeout outing with two doubles on Saturday. Castro pointed out that this season, unlike last year, many of his hitless games have actually been productive in his mind.

“I know I’m doing my job,” Castro said. “I don’t put my head down.”

Despite not always delivering at the plate, Castro is having strong at-bats, hitting the ball hard quite often, whether it lands for a hit or not is out of his control. Castro understands that if he continues to have a sound process, the positive results will come.

His manager, Rick Renteria, believes Castro is just continuing to learn as his career goes along.

“That’s part of his growth, part of him growing up,” Renteria said. “:I would say he’s probably been proactive his entire career, just what happens is you to know how to be proactive, you have to know what to look for. You need to be able to ask the right questions or we as instructors need to know how to ask the right question of the player to see what they’re thinking, how they’re viewing things. Sometimes we have to lend different perspective. I think the coaching staff has done a great job of trying to communicate with these guys and keep them loose and keep them going.”

After a disastrous 2013 in which Castro posted career-worsts in OPS (.631), strikeout rate (18.3%) and walk rate (4.3%), Castro has bounced back nicely. While his .270/.313/.435 doesn’t pop out (although the slugging percentage would be a career high), there are signs that even those solid numbers could improve.

Castro’s .295 BABIP doesn’t appear to be unusually low, but Castro is a player who puts the ball in play quite regularly. In his first two seasons, when he was at his best, his BABIP was .346 and .344. Currently, Castro has a career-high 22.0% line drive rate (according to Fangraphs.com), which is one indication that his BABIP (and in turn, his batting average) should increase.

The previous coaching staff had been working with Castro to become more selective at the plate, trying to make sure the aggressive swinger looked to drive his pitch, rather than weakly putting a pitcher’s pitch in play. Towards the end of last season, Castro returned to the approach that he was more comfortable with, but it appears the lessons may have been worthwhile.

When looking at the PITCHf/x data this season, Castro is swinging at fewer pitches overall (career-low 45.7%) and is particularly more discriminating with pitches outside of the zone, only offering at them 29.6%, three percent less than his previous career low. The results have been Castro driving the ball with more authority when he is swinging, which means more extra-base hits and thus a more dangerous offensive force.

Castro’s evolution has certainly been an interesting one, with some suggesting last year’s struggles were a sign that he would never live up to the hype that came along with his strong first two seasons. However, Castro has proven to be more resilient, particularly mentally, than many assumed. Castro’s ability to understand when something isn’t right with his swing and to actually identify and correct the issue so quickly is a sign of maturity and confidence outsiders have been waiting to see.

With the emergence of Anthony Rizzo as a strong presence in the middle of the lineup, Castro’s continued development with the bat could make the Cubs' often-struggling lineup all the more interesting. Especially when the organization's top hitting prospects, some of the best in all of baseball, start making their way to Wrigley.