2016 Statistics: 151 G, .270/.300/.433, 94 wRC+, 1.2 rWAR
2017 Roster Status: Guaranteed $34 million through 2019
Starlin Castro has been a bit of an enigmatic player throughout his career. He entered the big leagues at age 20 and found immediate success, posting a 105 OPS+ across his first three years, all at an incredibly young age. He mostly struggled from 2013 to 2015, and the Yankees were left to see which Castro would show up in 2016.
Somehow, the Yankees got both the good and the bad Castro in his inaugural year in pinstripes. He started out great, endearing himself to the Bronx faithful with a record 7 RBI in his first two games as a Yankee, but that quick start soon turned into a first half slump. Through the All-Star break, Castro was batting just .256/.293/.395, good for a 83 wRC+.
Yet down the stretch, Castro morphed into one of the Yankees' best hitters. His second half line was a strong .290/.310/.486, and his 109 wRC+ ranked second on the team over that span, behind only Gary Sanchez.
Such an up and down season is fairly typical for Castro. His career first half wRC+ of 89 pales in comparison to his career second half mark of 105. Many of the troubles that have plagued Castro before popped up during this first half, namely poor plate discipline, in the form of a 4.5% walk rate, and a lack of power, in the form of a .139 ISO.
It seemed plausible that some bad luck played into his first half struggles, as he posted a .280 BABIP, well below his career norms. Indeed, during the second half, his BABIP inflated to .330, despite a decrease in walk rate (to 3.2%), and an increase in strikeout rate (up from 17.6% to 21.7%).
However, Castro’s batted ball profile did support this improved performance on batted balls, as his quality second half seemed to be propelled simply by making better contact. He stopped putting the ball on the ground as much, as his groundball rate fell from 52.4% to 44.6%, and his hard contact rate rose from 28.7% to 34.7% (figures courtesy of FanGraphs).
Still, there are real holes in Castro’s game. Castro has turned into a very aggressive hitter, as his 51.7% swing rate ranked among the top 25 in MLB. He didn’t demonstrate the discipline and contact skills necessary to sustain that level of aggressiveness. His contact rate of 78.2% was average, and his out of zone swing rate of 36.7% placed him inside the top 20 in baseball.
Watching Castro play, it seemed painfully obvious that pitchers could goad him into swinging at anything in the dirt. According to Brooks Baseball, Castro actually swung at over half the offspeed and breaking offerings opposing pitchers threw below the knees. Plus, it seemed that opposing pitchers grew aware of his weakness. Here are the heatmaps of all the pitches Castro has faced from 2010 to 2015, and in just 2016:
Notice how pitchers appear to have moved down and away from Castro, potentially with the knowledge that they don’t have to give Castro anything above the knees and he’ll still swing away. Laying off junk in the dirt and developing some semblance of plate discipline is probably where Castro can improve most as a hitter in the future.
Looking forward, Castro did enough this season to warrant the belief that he could get better, as this was just his age-26 season, but his struggles make it hard to envision him ever truly regaining his early career form. Somewhat fortunately, his contract isn’t onerous, as he’s guaranteed an average annual salary of about $11 million for each of the next three years. That’s a palatable price for a middling player with potential.
Castro’s 2016 campaign wasn't a particularly convincing argument that he will ever reach his upside. His strong finish to the season should give the Yankees hope, but his overall season line is still uninspiring. The Yankees could certainly do worse, as their second base situation from 2014 and 2015 proves. For now, the Yankees seem to have a reasonably priced but average at best option manning the keystone.