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Cubs Thu Jun 13 2013

Starlin Castro's Swing Issues Killing Cubs Offense

Cubs_200.pngWhen you're paid like an offensive star on a team that lacks them, prolonged slumps can drag down the entire lineup, making losing weeks seem like months. The Cubs were able to rattle off a five-game winning streak to close out the month of May, but have sandwiched it with a pair of 2-8 records in the ten games before and after the streak.

Hitting and scoring runs have been the crux of the problem for the North Siders all year, and Starlin Castro's lack of production has been front and center. He ranks in the bottom-10 in the league in Wins Above Replacement (actually coming in as a -0.5 - below a normal triple-A replacement player) and it mostly has to do with his bat, posting a triple slash line of .201/.257/.269 over the last 33 games. He's striking out at a career high clip, walking at a career low, and hitting more pop ups when he does happen to make contact. It's been a miserable year for him in the batter's box.

Dale Sveum has considered sitting him down a day or two to allow him to get his mind straight, but he hasn't done so in hopes of the mechanical adjustments they're making work. Sveum (a former hitting coach in Milwaukee), and Cubs hitting coach James Rowson have been trying to get Castro to close his stance, quiet down a bit before the pitcher throws and to calm his drastic step that he takes. They're claiming that the small differences in his swing now as compared to when he came to the majors are robbing him of his otherworldly hand/eye coordination.

I studied video of a four-hit game Castro had in during a hot streak he had from August 2011 (his second season), and compared it to a swing from a couple of weeks ago before they started talking to the media about what they were working on with Castro. Yes, you could see the minor variations in stance and leg kick that Sveum discussed, but guys can be successful starting from and moving in just about any way possible so long as the hands are back and the body is balanced. Look at Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who was known for hundreds of unique stances in his storied career.

The problem I found with Castro had to do with weight distribution. When hitters toe tap or step forward, it's typically just as a timing mechanism; over half of their body weight should remain on their back foot to keep balanced and allow themselves a chance to adjust to breaking pitches. You still generate power and bat speed with your core, arms, and hands.

In this first photo from August of 2011, the pitcher is throwing a breaking ball, and I've highlighted the ball with a white dot to make it easier to see. Castro's weight is still mostly on his back foot, and that foot remains parallel with the back edge of the plate to prevent from spinning out early on anything offspeed (an overly excessive spin out example is Kosuke Fukudome). In this position, he still has the opportunity to drive the ball to anywhere on the diamond, and his front foot remains a foot or so inside the front of the box.

8.11 pitch thrown foot down BB.jpg

The second photo from late May shows Castro way out on his front foot, which has his body already committed to a similar breaking pitch from the first photo. The back foot is tough to see because the camera angle is different, but he's already up on his toe and starting to torque his body and foot -- putting him out of position. With the back leg collapsing, there are only three possible outcomes: a groundout to the shortstop, a soft grounder/liner to shallow right field, or a strikeout.

5.13 pitch thrown foot down.jpg

In this particular instance, Castro was able to keep his bat back long enough to flip the ball to right for a base hit, but the massive weight transfer (you can also see his foot is closer to the front of the batter's box than in the first picture) prevents him from lasering shots all around the field, which is the Castro that Cubs fans got used to during his first two seasons.

It feels like we're beating a dead horse to remind people about his age, but at 23 years old, these are the kind of trials and tribulations a player typically goes through in the minor leagues. Instead, Castro is forced to make changes on the fly against the best hurlers the world has to offer. It will take a few weeks of tweaks, but he'll more than likely get it all figured out. However, if we get to the All-Star break with no visible bounce back, it'll be time to start worrying about their $60 million man.

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