Cubs

Believe the hype: Castros as good as advertised

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Believe the hype: Castros as good as advertised

Sunday, April 17, 2011Posted: 4:10 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

DENVER Starlin Castro didnt understand anything. Hed sit down at a restaurant in Daytona, Fla. If the menu didnt have any pictures, then, well, he wasnt going to eat.

The game came naturally. Castros father wanted a baseball player and called his son Starlin because it was a real ballplayers name in the Dominican Republic.

When Castro returned home to Monte Cristy this winter, he could feel that he was being looked at differently, like a big-league man.

Its the same in the Cubs clubhouse, where Castros no longer a rookie but the teams most dynamic player. He gets it walking the downtown streets in Chicago, and its all so new that he still enjoys being recognized.

Those close to Castro could see this coming. Vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita, who oversees Latin America for the Cubs, stressed the importance of learning the language and told him that he didnt need an interpreter at his side.

Castro rubbed his fingers together while recalling what his agent, Paul Kinzer, told him: If you dont speak English, you dont make money.

By now, its clear that everyone will want a piece of Castro. At 21 years and 24 days old, the shortstop is the youngest player in the majors, but he carries himself at a level far beyond that. He woke up Sunday morning batting .397 and leading the majors in hits (25).

I dont think anything surprises me anymore, catcher Koyie Hill said. After his first at-bat in Cincinnati, it should have all been downhill from there. But hes proved us wrong every day.

Now its time to believe the hype. Castro homered in his first at-bat and set a major-league record with six RBI in his debut last year. But hes proven that he values his craft and can do it once the adrenaline wears off.

Castros batting .336 since the All-Star break last season no one else in the National League has more hits during that time. More than that, its his approach, the way he knows the strike zone and works 13-pitch at-bats.

Cubs pitcher Casey Coleman, who once played with Castro at Double-A Tennessee, pointed to the three-run bomb he hit Saturday night off Rockies reliever Felipe Paulino into the left-field seats.

His ability is amazing, but his baseball smarts are even better, Coleman said. He knows what pitchers are trying to do with him and his hands are so quick. The home-run (pitch) was down and in off the plate, 95 mph. You dont see that, especially from a young guy.

Castro does not get fooled at the plate. The analytics on the website FanGraphs show that hes made contact almost 92 percent of the time when he swings. He has an advanced understanding of what he wants to do, but is still only scratching the surface.

Im so happy with him, manager Mike Quade said. It would be really fun to see him gain a little bit more discipline and maybe lay off some of those pitches that are off the plate and really put him in good situations pitch-count wise. (But) right now, hes doing things just fine. I got nothing to say except: Keep going, kid.

The other night, Alfonso Soriano walked into the clubhouse and smiled when he saw Castro surrounded by reporters doing a postgame interview. Soriano takes great pride in Castros development and yelled out: Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!

Soriano had told Castro that you have to talk to the media when you play like this.

He goes 0-for-4 and the next day hes got four hits. Its incredible, Soriano said. He does not get down.

Castro stayed with Soriano last year but has his own place now. His family lived with him during spring training and will come to Chicago in May for the rest of the season.

Castros face doesnt hide what hes thinking. He smiles easily and his eyes widen when he gets excited, then narrow when hes trying to make a point. He lounges at his locker while talking on the phone. His body language says: I was born to do this.

Its easy to envision Castro on more billboards and in more commercials. But all that is secondary for someone who takes this very seriously. He attacked the language studies because hes looking to improve. He learned more English watching ESPN and the MLB Network. This is a singular focus.

Baseball is my work, Castro said.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Strop, Cubs stumble. Bears really 5th best in NFL?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Strop, Cubs stumble. Bears really 5th best in NFL?

David Kaplan is joined by David Haugh, Madeline Kenney, Tony Andracki, Sam Panayotovich & Scott Paddock. Topics include Pedro Strop's recent struggles, Addison Russell's role on the team, Yoan Moncada's move to the cleanup spot, and the Bears being ranked 5th-best team in the NFL by PFT.

- Pedro Strop is really struggling right now.

- What will Addison Russell's role be going forward. He has not been in the lineup for 3 straight games

- Can the Cubs solve all of their roster problems at the trade deadline.

- Yoan Moncada moves to cleanup. Will that be his "spot" in the future as well?

- 10 years since Mark Buehrle's perfect game.

- Bears ranked 5th-best team in NFL by Pro Football Talk. Is that too high, too low or just right?

- NASCAR: Harvick outlasts Hamlin in Foxwoods.

- Tight race at the top of the standings. Busch & Logano separated by 3 points.

- Looking ahead to this weekends's Super Bowl of Street-Legal Drag Racing event at Route 66 Raceway

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Pedro Strop has had a tough go of it lately, but that doesn't mean it's time to panic on one of the most consistent relievers in Cubs history.

After blowing the game Monday night in San Francisco — his third blown save of the month — Strop now has a 5.47 ERA on the year and an 8.22 mark in July alone. In fact, nearly half the runs he's allowed in 2019 have come this month — 7 of 16.

But Strop has been pitching better than his ERA indicates — his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is nearly a full run lower than his ERA this season. His strikeout rate (27.4 percent) and walk rate (8.5 percent) are the lowest they've been since 2016. 

That being said, the 34-year-old has also seen a precipitous spike in hard contact rate and his soft contact percentage is way down. He's been plagued by the home run ball this year more than ever before, serving up 1.7 dingers per 9 innings, the highest rate of his career (though the same can be said for many pitchers this season).

So Strop clearly hasn't been his typical dominant self this year, but he also deserves a better fate than he's had to this point in the season.

Take Monday night, for example. 

Strop came on to pitch the eighth inning of a game the Cubs were leading 4-2 and promptly gave up a leadoff double to Pablo Sandoval. On paper, that's obviously not a great start, but look at where this pitch was when the Giants third baseman hit it:

Strop followed that by striking out Stephen Vogt before executing a nice pitch to Brandon Crawford and inducing a groundball...only to see it sneak through the infield for an RBI hit:

Then came a groundout before Austin Slater's game-tying double that came just inches away from Albert Almora Jr.'s glove in center field. 

The final blow was the go-ahead double by Joe Panik...on a ball that was higher than Strop would've liked it, but still not a bad pitch off the plate outside:

These are not bad pitches; it's not like Strop was leaving the ball over the heart of the plate all inning.

How's this for bad luck — the Sandoval double was pegged for just a .070 expected batting average. 

Crawford's single was hit at 89.7 mph and had an expected batting average of .360. By comparison, Kyle Schwarber hit a grounder in the top of the inning at 102.9 mph with an expected batting average of .630 and it was an out. It was simply a matter of Crawford's ball finding a hole while Schwarber hit his right at a defender. 

No matter which way you slice it, this was a tough luck outing for the veteran setup man. 

But bad luck or not, Strop still hasn't been getting the consistent results the Cubs need in crucial innings of a tight playoff race, so it's understandable manager Joe Maddon was asked about the bullpen usage on his weekly appearance with 670 The Score Tuesday afternoon:

"When Pedro's in the game, I really feel good about it," Maddon said. "We all do. I think last night, it was more about pitch selection than it was necessarily about stuff. He was one pitch away from getting out of that thing. 

"If you replay and look at it, you see the hit by Sandoval — that ball literally almost bounced. It really did and it almost hit his back foot. I don't know how he kept that ball fair, but he did. Good for him. And then Crawford hits a slow ground ball up the middle that gets between two guys that are outstanding infielders and that's a hit."

Maddon went on to say the last hit — Panik's double — was the more concerning one because it was a sinker that just didn't drop enough. Maddon said he'd rather see Strop go to his wicked slider in that situation than lean on a pitch (the sinker/fastball) that has seen a dip in velocity and value this season.

"I don't think Pedro's that far off," Maddon said. "Maybe the velocity's down a little bit more than anything. To utilize his cutter/slider and really get that to where he wants it — those are the devastating pitches. So that was my bigger concern last night."

Moving forward, it doesn't sound as if Maddon will shy away from utilizing Strop in high-leverage situations again, but the Cubs also have the luxury of a pretty deep bullpen where they could utilize some other arms (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler) to pitch the eighth inning and help bridge the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel.

Strop is 34 now and has dealt with some health issues over the last calendar year, but he has such a long track record of success that it wouldn't be surprising to see him once again emerge as a lights-out reliever before the season ends.

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