Tagged: Pat Listach

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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As Deadline Passes, Cubs’ Priority Should Be Extending Dale Sveum

In just about two days time, the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go.  The Cubs, who have been more active than any team in the month of July, will see a considerable slow down in activity with the passing of the draft, the initial international free agent signing period, and the trade deadline.  That leaves them with an ample opportunity to take care of what may be the most vital piece of business they have left before next season: Extend the contract of Manager, Dale Sveum.

Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

As Theo Epstein’s hand picked successor to Mike Quade, Dale Sveum has done everything the Cubs could have imagined…and more.  He deserves to go into next season with some job security, and the Cubs should go into this off-season, where they will surely try to add players who can help the major league team take the next step toward respectability, with stability in the manager’s office.

Although his 109-156 record isn’t outstanding, it is also not his fault.  He walked into a complete overhaul of a roster of albatross contracts, aging veterans, and young players who really weren’t major league players.  To make matters worse, the front office either traded or shut down major portions of his starting rotation…in both 2012 and 2013.  The bullpens he’s had to work with have been largely unproven young players or veteran retreads (*cough cough* Shawn Camp *cough*), and it has shown in the win-loss column.

Dale Sveum was hired to do two main things: Keep the clubhouse together and develop young talent.  He’s done exceedingly well on both fronts in his first two seasons.

On the player development front, the biggest feather in his cap is the coaching staff he’s put together.  While he may have had Rudy Jaramillo and Pat Listach as hold overs for either part or all of last season, the additions of Dave McKay, David Bell, and Chris Bosio have all been successful.  Dave McKay helped turn Alfonso Soriano into a serviceable left fielder.  After years of being afraid of the wall and hopping around like a wounded bunny rabbit, Soriano had the highest UZR among NL left fielders last season.  It’s amazing what a little coaching will do after Soriano admitted that he hadn’t gotten any outfield instruction before last season, from either Quade’s staff or Lou Piniella before him.  Anthony Rizzo is another success, as Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach, brought his hands down, shortening his swing, and making him better than the .141/.281.242 hitter he was with the Padres in 2011.  The anecdotes serve as evidence of a whole: the Cubs are a vastly improved defensive team from the years before Sveum.  And the approach at the plate is starting to get better, too.  Nothing happens over night, but the results are starting to show up.  In spite of all of the player movement, trades, and lost veterans in the clubhouse, the Cubs have a winning record since May 26 (30-25).  While the sample is small, the results matter.  Even with major bullpen issues and a complete inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are playing competitively.  The steps in the right direction are adding up.

The clubhouse is the other place Sveum was asked to thrive.  As a former top prospect, he can relate to the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and soon Javier Baez, et al.  He can also relate to the 25th man on the roster because that’s where his career ended after a devastating leg injury.  He knows the weight of expectations and he knows the plight of the role player who is tasked to sit and wait for his name to be called, and the need to be ready.  He relates to his players because he’s been there and done that.  And while he took some undeserved criticism for his loyalty to Shawn Camp from fans, it was not his job to get rid of Camp.  It was the front office’s.  Having his player’s back, especially one who he’s had history with, was the only move he could make that doesn’t send the alienating “as soon as I see trouble, I’m going to turn my back on you.” message.  That’s a terrible image to portray to the rest of the team.  The fact that Dale said it was tough to see Camp go may have made fans cringe, but it probably made the team smile a little bit.  When veterans like Matt Garza hang around after being shut down with 2 1/2 months left in a 100 loss season, it says as much as there is to say about a clubhouse…especially when Garza admitted if it had been Quade’s clubhouse, he would have gone home.  And being able to sign quality free agents like Edwin Jackson after a 100 loss season doesn’t happen if the player thinks the manager is a bum who can’t manage a clubhouse.  Think about it.  Has anything obscenely negative come out of the clubhouse during Sveum’s tenure?  For a team with the win-loss record the Cubs have had, you’d think there would be something.  Especially in a media market like Chicago.  But it’s been remarkably quiet.  Which means the bad stuff is being handled where it should…in house.

Dale has been charged with over-seeing a complete rebuild, which couldn’t have been fun, couldn’t have been easy, and couldn’t have happened in any worse a place than Wrigley Field, where every year is “THE YEAR” to a group of people who only watch the game and read the box score in the paper each morning.  The reality is, last year, this year, and probably next year are not “THE YEAR.”  But the team is heading in the right direction in spite of the instability among the player personnel.  That is a credit to Sveum, and the right thing to do is ensure that he never gets to “lame duck” status in the last year of a contract with a team, who next year may be able to win consistently for the first time in his tenure.

Besides.  He got shot in the face and laughed it off.  How cool is it to have a manager like that?

Cubs Complete Baker to Tigers Trade, End of Season Stuff

The Cubs have acquired Marcelo Josue Carreno and a cash consideration for Jeff Baker, to complete the trade from the Tigers.  In other news, Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein will be under indictment for grand theft of a prospect in this deal.  Marcelo Carreno was the 11th ranked prospect in the Tigers system (well, not anymore) at the end of the 2012 regular season.  He spent 2011 and 2012 in the Midwest League with West Michigan, posting some decent numbers.  MLB.com’s ranking report on him says “Better command of his fastball, curve and change-up could help him become a solid middle-of-the-rotation type,” which is basically stealing from a team who used Baker for about 15 minutes (actually, it was 15 games, and he hit .200) before sending him to Atlanta for a player to be named later.

With the season having come to a close about two weeks ago, things are going to start to make themselves clear in a short amount of time about the shape of the club next season.  It has already been made apparent that the Cubs will seek out additional starting pitching for next season.  So, don’t despair about an entire season with what we saw the last two months of this season, where there was little to no pitching available outside of Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija, until he was shut down.  With Samardzija, and potentially Matt Garza, coming back to start the season with Travis Wood (probably) and two new guys, the pitching should be a lot more stable at the beginning of next season than it was at the end of this one.  Matt Garza, however, still is a candidate to be dealt this off-season, which would make it more likely that Wood and Samardzija join three new acquisitions in the rotation as 2013 begins.

The powers that be are still singing the praises of Dale Sveum, so to all of you out there who are thinking there could be a third straight year of managerial search or want another managerial search…stop it.

ESPN’s Buster Olney says that the Brewers are in play to sign Josh Hamilton this off-season.  Not Cubs related at all…just something to snicker at.  They seem to be turning into the Brewers circa 2007 when they were trying to out slug everyone because they couldn’t pitch.  I don’t see it happening, but the thought of it is just amusing.

Remember the name Pete Mackanin?  It’s cool.  Not everyone lives this stuff like I do.  He was one of the guys who was interviewed to be the manager last off-season.  Well, since he was fired from his role as bench coach in Philadelphia, his name has surfaced as a potential replacement for the departed Pat Listach, as third base coach.  Listach was let go, likely because of philosophical differences.  I don’t understand them, because his philosophy clearly worked with Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro’s defense.  Mackanin is a name that has been mentioned.  Former Astros manager, Brad Mills is also an option.  We’ll see who Epstein, Hoyer, and Sveum come to a consensus on.  I wouldn’t bet against Mackanin, though.  Too many things are in play for him to not get a real shot at being the new third base coach.

There are going to be names to watch this off-season.  They include Matt Garza, Alfonso Soriano, and Carlos Marmol.  All three are prime trade candidates, especially Marmol and Soriano, who had very nice seasons to improve their stock.

Sveum Difference

For fans, it would be easy to say things could not get any worse than watching a team at or near the bottom of the majors, record wise.  The easy assertion, however, is typically wrong.

There is one thing I love about the 2012 Cubs.  There is one thing that stands out above everything else with this team, and it is a direct reflection on the character of the team and Manager, Dale Sveum.  They compete.  They compete for nine innings, until the final out is recorded every single day.

Some plays stick out in my mind to back my claim, like Ian Stewart running and sliding hard into second base and Reed Johnson hustling down the line to break up a potential game ending double play against the Twins on June 9, which was a game that had long been decided.  There are other anecdotes similar to that one sprinkled all over the disappointing 69 games so far.

Beyond the team, I give the credit to Dale Sveum.  He is showing that he is, without question, the right man for the job.  I take the time to listen to his post game comments nearly every day when they are posted on cubs.com, and he sounds the same whether the team wins or loses.  He doesn’t point the finger at players for losses.  He doesn’t sit in front of the media and give the “woe is me” speech.  He answers the questions and moves on.

Undoubtedly, this is a tough season for Sveum.  His only other managerial experience came as the Brewers’ skipper at the end of their 2008 run to the Wild Card and their first round series vs. Philadelphia.  His experience came with a winning team, and last season he was on their bench as they went to the NLCS.  Indeed, he has needed to change gears quickly from refining the hitting of an established team that could rake with the best of them, to teaching the fundamentals of baseball to one with holes and “a talent deficit” that his new bosses in the Cubs’ front office handed him.

Handling that deficit is the first way in which he is passing the test.  First, he surrounded himself with experience, youth, energy, and great teachers of the game.  His coaching staff includes the very experienced Dave McKay (who should get a medal for his work in the outfield with Alfonso Soriano), Chris Bosio, Jamie Quirk, James Rowson, and holdovers Pat Listach and Lester Strode.  All of them are somewhat young as far as coaches go, with the exception of McKay, who still seems to be young at heart.  All of them are former players.  All of them seem to have their players’ ears.  He surrounded a team that wasn’t as talented or experienced with some talented and experienced coaches, and the product on the field, while tough to watch at times, has not been as sloppy or lethargic as it has been in years past under Mike Quade and Lou Piniella.

To this point, Dale Sveum has done nothing to cause me to lose my confidence in him.  From afar, he seems to be the right kind of manager to help develop a team with some short-comings, but talent coming up through the system.  In spite of the pace they’ve set and the potential for a fire sale as the summer continues, I still do not expect to see the team lose 100 games, because I expect them to keep getting better.  They’ve done that all season.  Their 21 games under .500 record will likely not change too much, because even though they had a long stretch of losses, they are a team with some good players that are capable of getting hot and going on a six or seven game surge.  And the law of averages says that some of these close losses will turn into some close wins late in the season.

It may be tough to look long term at this team.  It would also be foolish, since there will be inevitable changes.  The leadership of the on field product is very good, though.  There is a dynamic with this team that could make them fun to watch as a spoiler down the stretch.  Take them day to day.  And enjoy the product’s improvement looking back, as Dale Sveum has more and more time to put his stamp on the team and mold it for future, less difficult seasons.

Middle Defense

Last season, the Cubs’ defense was one of the things that let them down the most in a disappointing 71-91 season, which led to the Ricketts family getting rid of everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor.  That, by now, is common knowledge.  The most significant problem was the development of SS Starlin Castro and 2B Darwin Barney, who were both in their first full season in the majors, and Barney was learning how to play second, after coming up as a short stop.

This season, things are quite a bit better up the middle for the Cubs.  The eye test is the first indicator, showing us the range of both Castro and Barney, getting to balls that many players in their positions would not.  Darwin Barney, last night, made a dazzling defensive play in the ninth, turning a sure base hit into a fielder’s choice that retired Corey Hart at second base.  The numbers back up the defensive improvement.  He has one error in 254 total chances, which is good for a strong .996 fielding percentage.  His “range factor” rating is also at the highest it’s been in his major league career.  His range factors and fielding percentage are both above the league average

Photo: Jeff Gross, Getty Images

this season, and both improved over his 2011 numbers, which is a testament to two things: Barney’s hard work to improve his defense, and an accumulation of time at a new position, making him more comfortable.  It is simple to throw metrics out there as a quantification for improvement, and those support my assertion that he is much better, but the big things are the jump from 29th in 2011 to 6th thus far in 2012 in defensive efficiency, and the slight improvement in fielding percentage as a team.  Much of that is due to the improvement up the middle.

Starlin Castro’s defense is a different, but not dramatically worse, story.  There are lingering questions about his defense, which aren’t all fair.  His .966 fielding percentage is accompanied by his nine errors so far in 2012.  Six of those errors, however, came in two games.  And with the league average for short stops being .969, Starlin isn’t all that far off the pace of his peers.  The numbers that are a little more promising are his runs above average, which is on the positive side of the coin for the first time in his career.  His range factor numbers are significantly higher than the league average, which is one of the things that can explain some of his errors.  Starlin Castro has the range to get to a great number of balls that nearly all of the other short stops in the league would have get through for hits.  Castro gets to the ball, and has such confidence in his arm that he has thrown it away when he should hang on to it, thus causing the dreaded E-6.  What I can’t quantify are the mental lapses, which are mind boggling, frustrating, and any other adjective-ting word you can throw in there to describe them for a guy in his third season with the Cubs.  What gets lost is that the kid is 22.  The fact that lapses have been more often lately leads me to believe that Castro is at least a little bit tired, since he has started every game to this point, and has been expected to carry a huge load offensively.  Last season, Mike Quade gave him days off on occasion.  Dale Sveum might be wise to follow those footsteps.  For a kid trying to develop, he is being expected to carry a large burden for this 2012 team.  To be fair, the eye test has been kind to Starlin, too.  He doesn’t wait back on balls as much as he did in years past, his feet are much better, and he has repeated his throwing motion much more consistently this season, leading to a lot fewer errors at short…a not so slight indication that his work with Dale Sveum has paid off.

The new coaching staff has spent countless hours in spring and during the season working on improving the defense.  Infield Instructor, Pat Listach, has worked tirelessly with Castro and Barney both to improve their defense.  By all accounts, the two have been enthusiastic about improving their defense, as well.  It goes without saying that it is vital for the middle of the field to be covered defensively.  Last season, that let the Cubs down mightily.  This season, the team has been much improved defensively, and that is an effort that is led by the improvement up the middle.

2012 Coaching Staff

Of all of the interesting facts that I could find about the additions to the Cubs’ Coaching Staff under new Manager Dale Sveum, the one I found most interesting is that all of them have worked on staffs of division rivals in their past.

Their past is not the relevant part of the discussion.  The relevant discussion points  regarding new coaches, Chris Bosio (Pitching), Dave McKay (First Base), and Jamie Quirk (Bench) is what they can teach the plethora of youth on the roster.  All of the coaches, including the holdovers, have a great deal of experience as coaches at the major league level.  Clearly, Dale Sveum wanted to surround himself with knowledge to make his transition to managing happen more smoothly…and it was the first of hopefully many good decision.

New Coaches for 2012

Pitching Coach: Chris Bosio – Bosio’s Wisconsin roots run deep, having pitched for the Brewers, coached and scouted for the Brewers, and been a coach at UW-Oshkosh and Lawrence University in Appleton.  He moves south to take over pitchers for the Cubs, replacing Mark Riggins after one season.  He is in his third stint overall as a MLB Pitching Coach.  Bosio subscribes to the new regime’s methods of statistical analysis, and had charted each pitchers tendencies before Spring Training and left a copy in each pitcher’s locker before the first workout.  He is left with the unenviable task of turning around a group that ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every category last season and will need a much stronger showing to improve on the teams 71 win showing last season.

First Base Coach: Dave McKay– Cubs’ fans should know this name well.  He has  been one of Tony LaRussa’s right hands in St. Louis for years.  McKay is generally regarded as one of, if not the, best First Base Coaches in baseball.  The base running was awful last season, and it will be on McKay and new Third Base Coach Pat Listach (moved from Bench

Photo: Tim Sheridan

Coach after last season) to help the base runners make better decisions and exercise the aggressiveness that Sveum wants to see out of his runners.  In addition to base coaching, McKay serves as the primary Outfield Instructor, and according to Manager Dale Sveum, he has taken a keen interest in LF Alfonso Soriano.  With so many young players, however, he will have a vital role in his capacities on the bases and in helping the outfield defense.

Bench Coach: Jamie Quirk – Every new Manager needs an experienced Bench Coach, and Quirk is nothing if not experienced.  He has been in professional baseball for 37 seasons before 2012, and has been a Bench Coach for 12 years, in two different stints.  He was the Royals’ Bench Coach from 1996-2001 and the Rockies’ Bench Coach from 2003-2008 under Clint Hurdle.  Quirk spent time as a major league player with St. Louis and Milwaukee, amongst others, and he will bring experience to the bench to assist Dale Sveum in growing into his role as a Manager, and help the crop of young catchers learn to handle a young pitching staff.

Returning Coaches:

Hitting Coach: Rudy Jaramillo
Third Base Coach: Pat Listach (2011 Bench Coach under Mike Quade)
Bullpen Coach: Lester Strode