The Yankees have had an incredible start to their season, and with a team doing this well, you’re going to get contributions all around. But of all the performances so far, few have been as exciting as Starlin Castro. Aaron Judge has been The Story thus far, but Castro can’t be forgotten: through May 6th, he has hit .381/.421/.584 (183 wRC+) with six home runs in just 28 games.
Even though he’s been in the league for over seven full seasons, there has been a consensus that he has serious talent. When he came over in the trade with the Cubs, the thought was that the then-25-year-old still had immeasurable upside.
Today, it’s still unclear. With a career 98 wRC+ and over 1000 major league games under his belt, are we really sure he could be better this year? Generally speaking, players are who they are. They make adjustments, for sure, but fundamental changes to an approach or mechanics that lead to meaningful, positive changes are few and far between. But they exist.
That’s why the changes Castro made are interesting, not just because there’s a possibility these changes could become permanent; even if he regresses, his start was great enough that even if he’s league-average the rest of the year, that’s still an above-average player (ZiPS says 3.0 WAR). It’s worth investigating.
Firstly, let’s just admit off the bat that he will regress. A 183 wRC+ is not sustainable in the slightest, and a .425 BABIP (versus his career .321) hints at the fact he’s getting lucky to an extent. It’s not like he’s hitting lasers all the time, because his hard-hit percentage is identical to his 2016 mark (31.2%).
The changes that might matter, though, raise an eyebrow. The first one is, simply, where he’s swinging the bat.
I’ll preface everything with the small sample size alert, but still, take a look at this. The first is his swing-percentage before this season, and the second is his swing-percentage this season. Unlike previous seasons, he’s disproportionately swinging at pitches up-and-in and pitches in the zone, as opposed to previously, when he was prone to expanding the zone.
The next couple of images are a comparison between contact-percentage before 2017 and during 2017, and once again, you see a big difference. He’s making significantly more contact on pitches in the heart of the plate.
But what’s also important is what he’s not hitting, and what pitches he’s doing better against. Here’s a nice demonstration of that from Brooks Baseball:
He’s swung and missed less at all types of pitches, but breaking and offspeed is going to be the one to watch moving forward. With his whiff-percentage at about 25% for those types of pitches, cutting that down to 15% makes him, essentially, a different hitter.
I always like some qualitative evidence to show this all wasn’t an accident, and there is some. In an NJ.com article from April 20th, it’s mentioned that Castro received some good advice from Manny Ramirez:
“‘We got a good relationship,’ Castro said. ‘We always text.’ Castro and Ramirez talked specifically about how the 27-year-old could ‘stop getting myself out,’ he said. That meant trying to swing at fewer bad pitches, Castro said. ‘We were just talking about how to see the ball better, trying to be square in our stance all the time, swinging at only pitches for strikes,’ Castro said...”
This isn’t a surprise; all hitters are trying to do this. It’s a particularly bad problem for Castro, though, and seeing that he’s actively correcting this and that it’s showing bodes well, at least for now.
I don’t think is a Corner Turned, just yet. There’s still a whole season ahead, and Castro is still a fully formed player. It’s pretty tough to unlearn what’s been learned. But if this is truly a step in the right direction, and he’s actually harnessing his hitting abilities to focus on pitches just in the zone, then he could be a better-than-league-average hitter instead of league-average, and that can make a world of a difference. Now, about that base running...