Coming into this 2014 season, there was a discernible cloud hanging over the head of Starlin Castro. Coming off back-to-back seasons in which he began to look more like a bust than the franchise player the Chicago Cubs had hoped he'd be, the question of his future in the Windy City became a legitimate one, especially with top prospect Javier Baez banging on Wrigley's door.
Yet, as we approach the two month mark in the young campaign, it looks as though Starlin Castro has gotten his groove back. Not only has he returned to the form that led to the Cubs locking him up on a very favorable contract extension, but his game seems headed in a direction that could indicate surpassing whatever expectations were initially laid out for him when he broke into the big leagues back in 2010.
Castro's offensive numbers represent some of the best in the entire league among shortstops. His 1.4 WAR to date has him on pace for a new career high in that regard and is 0.1 away from being second best in the league behind Troy Tulowitzki and his absurd pace over in Colorado.
Looking at the overall numbers for Castro thus far in 2014 (entering Tuesday), there is a lot about which to be extremely excited:
Again, a lot to like here simply because much of what Starlin Castro has done at this point represents some of the best work of his career. His average and on-base percentage are each flirting with career highs, and that strikeout rate is down significantly from last season. BABIP is in there because that isn't such an astronomical figure that might indicate a regression at some point. It's a perfectly reasonable mark.
One particularly intriguing aspect of the numbers here is that ISO, up at .189 on the season. This represents Castro's ability to hit for extra bases and is 42 points higher than his previous career high, which he set back in 2012. It's always been expected that Castro would hit for more power and record more XBH as his career wore on, and he's doing exactly that.
But just how has Castro managed to be so successful? His last two years each saw significant decline in his ability to maintain any sort of consistency at the plate. He attributed it to too many voices in his head about his swing last year, something that was likely mitigated with the departure of Dale Sveum as manager. In reality, there isn't a ton that Castro is doing all that differently from what he did in '12 or '13.
Castro is a naturally aggressive hitter. That's when he's at his best. He's being a bit more selective up there, which is a factor in his success. That swing percentage outside the zone (30.2) is actually down a few points, while his zone swing percentage (65.4) is up a touch. His swinging strike percentage, though not reflected here, is down half a percent as well. Funny thing is, his out of zone contact percentage is actually up, while his percentage in the zone is down a bit. But being more selective overall has certainly played a part.
The fielding has also been there for Castro. Once a black mark on his young career, Castro isn't going to win a Gold Glove any time soon, but he's shown marginal improvement with the leather here early on. He has a pair of Defensive Runs Saved above average to his credit (his career high is three), while his UZR per 150 innings is currently at 2.4, which represents a career mark. He's not Andrelton Simmons out there in the field, but he's playing solid defense, which once seemed like too tall an order for him to fill.
Ultimately, it's tough to point out any one reason why Starlin Castro has re-established himself as a franchise player for the Chicago Cubs. A fresh start with a new manager is certainly a factor. As is his ability to go out and be aggressive, which has made him successful in the past. His swinging tendencies haven't changed all that much though. Whatever the case may be, he's regained his form and managed to increase his ability to hit for extra bases, and that's great news for the Cubs.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.
Randy Hold is a contributor to Beyond The Box Score.