Starlin Castro’s OBP critics are whiffing on his gift for hitting
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com May 29, 2013 11:30PM
Updated: July 2, 2013 7:19AM
Enough with the Starlin Castro bashing already.
Ever since Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer addressed a barely relevant line of questioning about on-base percentage the other day, Castro has come under renewed scrutiny from some in the local media who suggest he isn’t a good-enough hitter to be considered a building block in the Cubs’ plans.
These critics seem to ignore that none of the leaders of the Cubs’ second-year regime are calling out Castro — or ‘‘putting him on notice,’’ as one outlet put it.
Never mind that the 23-year-old is the Cubs’ best major-league hitter — and maybe the most talented hitter on either roster for this Crosstown Showdown — at an age when most pro ballplayers are in Class AA.
And don’t forget that president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the boys gave the two-time All-Star shortstop a seven-year contract extension less than a year ago. It wasn’t to turn him into Kevin Youkilis — a fine hitter with an excellent approach, but unable to do the kinds of things with a bat that Castro can do.
‘‘Most people have the talent to walk,’’ seven-time All-Star Alfonso Soriano said. ‘‘Not everybody has the talent to hit.’’
Not like this. Not at this level, at this age.
‘‘He’s been blessed with incredible hand-eye coordination, so he can hit all strikes,’’ Cubs hitting coach James Rowson said. ‘‘All hitters can’t do that. With some hitters, the plate discipline comes a little bit earlier simply because they don’t have the hand-eye coordination to be able to hit all strikes. But Starlin has it.’’
Maybe all that ability and all those hits — 529 before he turned 23, including a 200-hit season before he turned 22 — is why many seem to think he’s having a bad year batting .271 nine weeks into a 25-week season.
Maybe it’s because the contract put a public bull’s-eye on him. Maybe it’s because people see the name Theo Epstein, assume he’s some sort of Moneyball deity, further assume that Moneyball is some cutting-edge school of thought — or mistakenly assume it’s all about on-base percentage. And then they ask Hoyer about OBP’s rightfully prominent place in baseball’s universe and assume Hoyer’s response supports a simplistic interpretation of Castro.
Castro says he’s getting the same message from Rowson as he did from former hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo: Stay aggressive but narrow your strike zone early in the count, even if it means taking a strike if it’s not your pitch.
‘‘Control the at-bat,’’ Rowson said. ‘‘It’s not as if we’re telling him we want him to walk. We want him just to drive the ball, hit pitches that he can drive before two strikes.’’
It won’t make him a .400 on-base guy. But he’ll draw a few more walks with experience and, in the process, become an even more dangerous hitter.
‘‘I know on-base percentage is good,’’ Castro said. ‘‘I know that. But if a pitcher throws me a strike, what am I going to do? Take it? No. I go up there ready to hit. If he doesn’t throw me a strike, I’ll take my walk.’’
Rowson believes in Castro. He calls him a “special hitter” and an intelligent player who understands the game at a high level.
“[The criticism] is kind of unfair,’’ veteran teammate David DeJesus said, ‘‘but when you pay your guy that much — the first guy with a long-term contract — he’s going to take hits like that. But if you see him out here early, in the cage working hard, taking his grounders, you would understand that this guy is putting in the time. He wants to be the best.’’