Dale Sveum – the third of five Cubs managers Starlin Castro played for – once downgraded the All-Star shortstop as a “hit collector” and dropped him to eighth in the lineup for a 96-loss team in 2013.
From the window to contend slamming shut on the win-one-for-Tribune-Tower group to Theo Epstein taking over baseball operations, Castro worked with at least seven hitting coaches between 2010 and 2015. Throughout that cycle of hiring and firing and laying the foundation for a championship team, Cubs officials tried to project Castro as an offensive force, hoping for sharper focus, some patience and more explosive power.
The New York Yankees believe certain players can handle the bright lights and the big city and will raise their game while wearing the pinstripes. That faith in Castro – plus the financial muscle to absorb $38 million guaranteed and the Cubs needing to make room at second base for future World Series MVP Ben Zobrist – drove the deal at the 2015 winter meetings.
Always a streaky hitter, Castro woke up on Sunday – the seven-year anniversary of his 6-RBI debut in Cincinnati – leading the American League with a .381 average and living up to the batting-title potential he flashed as a rookie. The guy who never hit more than 14 homers in a season with the Cubs already has six after the Felix Pena pitch he launched on Saturday night landed near the top of Wrigley Field’s left-field bleachers.
“He’s really inside the ball right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Even the home run, he just hit a hanging slider. If he was trying to hook that ball, he would not have kept that fair. He’s really staying inside the ball well. You saw a lot of balls up the middle, opposite field. That’s when he’s at his best.
“He looks like he’s in better shape. He’s running really well. I like the guy a lot – not a little bit. I’m hoping that he sustains it all year. You’re seeing Starlin at the top of his game.
“But I think, for me, physically, he looks better. He looks like he is in better shape. I don’t know if that’s true or not. He just looks better and he’s moving really well. And that’s, I think, part of why you’re seeing him swing the bat so well.”
Castro’s 0-for-8 on Sunday night/Monday morning included two RBI groundouts, including the 96-mph Pedro Strop fastball he hit in the 18th inning to drive in the game-winning run in a 5-4 win that became the exclamation point to a sweep of the defending World Series champs.
Castro will never become the type of grinding hitter who defined those old Boston Red Sox teams, but being a “hit collector” is still extremely difficult at a time of Big Data, defensive shifts, video libraries and specialized bullpens. Castro already has 15 multi-hit games this season, with at least one in 23 of his last 26 games.
“He’s had a lot of big hits for us,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He loves to play the game. Those are the kind of things you can see sometimes from afar. But there’s a toughness there with Starlin that I’ve seen that impresses me.”
No doubt, all those experiences in Chicago shaped Castro, who hit cleanup for a first-place team that led the AL in runs scored, homers, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
“They’re playing as good as they can right now,” Maddon said. “They have a lot of guys having a career year right now for the first month, guys that the back of their bubblegum card does not necessarily match up to what they’re doing right now. But that doesn’t say that they can’t sustain it. There are some really interesting players (who) have made adjustments at the plate.”