The Mythical Regressions of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo

There has been a great deal of discussion about why Dale Sveum was fired, and this post is not a discussion about that particular topic, although it is an interesting one.  This post is to discuss whether or not Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro went through a significant regression during the 2013 season.

The short answer to that question is no*.

First, let’s examine Rizzo’s season.  I will say this, a guy who came into the season with 521 career plate appearances in the majors isn’t regressing in his FIRST full major league season.  It just doesn’t work that way.  He had 690 PAs this season in 160 games, which was more than the 136 career games he had coming in.  When a season counts for over half of your career numbers, it wasn’t regression.  This season was about adjustment for Rizzo.  His .233/.323/.419 line isn’t all that spectacular, but his power numbers were.  Before the season, I predicted he would hit between 25 and 30 HRs and drive in between 80 and 90 runs.  I didn’t miss by much.  He finished with 23 HR and 80 RBI.  For a first full season, not too shabby.  When tossing in his 40 doubles, two triples, and 76 walks, there is no reason not to be excited about the kid’s ability.  It is fair to say that after a hot start, he got considerably colder, hitting ten of his home runs and driving in 36 of his runs before June.  The number that really sticks out to me is .258.  That was his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP).  That is much lower than his .310 mark in 2012, and is inconsistent with his career marks, save his brief period with the Padres in 2011, which can be explained, in part, by small sample size.  He did hit more fly balls (30.2% in 2012 to 37.9% in 2013) and his line drive percentage dropped about 5 points to 19.6%.  None of that to me suggests that he is broken or regressed.  It suggests that a young player was undergoing an adjustment after a successful initial prolonged stint of major league baseball.  In the field, he was as advertised.  In fact, a case can be made to grant Anthony Rizzo a Gold Glove.  His 16 defensive runs saved was the best among first basemen in MLB.  His Ultimate Zone Rating was third in MLB and topped the National League.  And his 43 plays made out of zone also topped the NL.  To me, this doesn’t look like a regression.  This looks like a kid learning, taking some lumps, but still performing pretty damn well.  He may not win a Gold Glove because the award doesn’t go to the most deserving player, but Rizzo has as good a resume as anyone for it…in just his first full major league season.

Starlin Castro is a lightning rod.  This was, statistically (in some cases) his worst major league season.  Was it regression?  Probably not.  Consider this:

“He’s a pretty unique hitter. I think we made efforts to introduce him to the concept of getting pitches he can really drive because in the long run that will benefit him. But if that can’t be accomplished without him being himself as a hitter than you just have to let time play its course and he’ll naturally evolve that way.”

And…

“With Starlin, if you try to throw too much at him — which maybe at times we’ve been guilty of — who knows, I think we’ve always been conscious of letting him be himself.  In his case he’s at his best if he’s single-mindedly himself.”

Those comments coming from Theo Epstein (via Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com) on the organizational decision to try to alter Starlin’s approach at the plate.   That makes me feel a whole lot better about his .245/.284/.347 this season.  It is easy to say he regressed, but if he tried something that simply didn’t work for him and he is able to start fresh in spring as the player we saw in 2010 and 2011, then 2013 will be a forgotten blip on the career of the still only 23 year old shortstop.  It’s not a regression until it happens in subsequent seasons because, for now, there is at least a plausible explanation for Starlin Castro’s season other than “he got worse.”  Defensively, everybody is going to get caught up in the “mental gaffes” and the errors, but the reality is his defense has taken some major steps forward.  His 22 errors are his career best to this point.  That has to do directly with the work done with Castro with former manager Dale Sveum, former infield instructor Pat Listach and current infield instructor (for now) David Bell.  He cut throwing errors down from 16 in 2011 to eight in each of the last two seasons for a total of 16.  The coaching staff worked on his feet, got him to get into good fielding and throwing positions, and it has made a positive difference.  It will remain up to Castro to continue with the things that he has done to cut his errors down.  He was third in the NL in plays made out of zone, and 87% of his chances resulted in outs, which was relatively unchanged from his 88% mark in 2012, but still up from the 85% marks he put out in 2010 and 2011.  This suggests that the coaching he’s gotten is to make sure he gets at least one out, which is a step forward for him from his first two seasons of trying to do way too much.  None of this is to say Starlin doesn’t have work to do.  We all saw he has some work to do defensively, but much of the bad stuff came early and he got better later in the season.  That is to say, there wasn’t a regression in his defense as the season wore on, which says something about the maturity he likes to get hammered for…since he was struggling at the plate and it did not transfer into the field.

There are words to be used to describe Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro this season.  Disappointing, which comes with the expectations placed on young talent with long term contract extensions in hand.  It is entirely too early to say they got worse, however.  Regression doesn’t happen in one season.  In Rizzo’s case, one full season.  He never had the time to establish a standard of performance from which to regress with because less than one full season’s worth of at-bats doesn’t cut it.  In Castro’s, it doesn’t come in one season where the approach he took at the plate was tinkered with by the organization.  That’s not regression.  If he has another season like last season, then we can talk about regression.  Until then, it’s too soon.

Since I wasn’t in the room to decide on Dale Sveum’s fate, I cannot say why exactly he was “relieved of his duties as manager.”  I can say that if it was “regression,” of Castro and Rizzo, then he got a raw deal.  More than likely, it has something to do with the message he was delivering.  After all, you can’t tell your most talented two players that “The bottom line is you have to perform. Whether you need more development or you decide all those kind of things. There’s still that accountability,” without it happening to you.  Isn’t that a cruel irony?

*Meatball stopped reading at this spot.  He is currently telling me I’m an idiot on Twitter, telling me that is why Dale was fired (maybe it was), and that I should look at the numbers (I did). 

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