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Big League Stew

Slumpbot .200: Starlin Castro leads All-Star edition

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available to us today, SlumpBot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having a bit of trouble and then offers solutions for performance recovery.

Starlin Castro, Chicago Cubs

Data: .302/.339/.420, 3 HR, 44 RBIs, 11 SB, 3 CS, 18 BB/54 K

Malfunction: Starlin Castro is a useful player, but the fact that he can hit .300 and play a solid shortstop at the age of 21 obscures the fact that he doesn't do anything exceptionally well just yet: He has very little power and poor plate discipline, with a serious aversion to walks, and his fielding is no better than adequate. He stands out on the Cubs because he does hit .300, but his inability to walk or hit for power means that if he ever goes through a slump, he has virtually no offensive value. And a slump is exactly what he's going through. Since the beginning of July, he's hitting .250/.265/.363, with just two walks against 16 strikeouts, as the Cubs' regular No. 2 hitter. The Cubs are 8-12 over that span, despite getting Aramis Ramirez back into their lineup.

Diagnosis: The thing about Castro is that this is very close to who he was in the minors. Here's a comparison of his career minor league and major league stats: {YSP:MORE}

Minors .310 .362 .421 6.8% 11.0% 1.61
Majors .301 .339 .414 5.0% 13.2% 2.66

Most players decline, at least at first, from their minor league numbers. The trouble is, of course, that his walk rate was already bad in the minors, and it's now nearly catastrophic. If Castro could add about 30 points of batting average every year, he'd be Ichiro, and that would be spectacular. Instead, he's just a feast-or-famine singles hitter, a man who's prone to slumps like everyone, but who doesn't really bring anything else offensively to the table.

A good statistical measure of "other things brought to the table" is a Bill James stat called Secondary Average. The league average this year is .243, and Jose Bautista is leading the majors with a secondary average of .611. Starlin Castro's Secondary Average is just .181 — which makes him 130th out of 152 players in the majors who have qualified for the batting title. The worst Secondary Average in the majors actually belongs to teammate Darwin Barney, and the second-worst belongs to Ryan Theriot, a familiar name to Cubs fans.

If Castro could simply boost his walk rate to league average, that would provide a tremendous boost to his overall offensive value. A bit more power is likely to come as he gets older and fills out — he's only 21, after all. But while power can develop naturally, as the body matures and adds muscle, plate discipline does not. Castro will need to work hard at learning how to walk, or else he'll never be much better than he is right now.

Reboot Directions: Castro is slumping because his singles aren't falling, but the real cause for his struggles is his poor plate discipline. He is a terrific contact hitter, but he swings at too many pitches out of the zone, and puts them into play weakly. If he can get better at recognizing balls and strikes, taking balls and swinging only at strikes, he could be one of the best contact hitters in the league. Or he could just be the worst regular .300 hitter in the league.

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Which other players are struggling?

Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers .280/.367/.480, 10 HR, 46 RBIs, 3 SB, 0 CS, 40 BB/75 K
Alex Avila's bat is a big reason that the Detroit Tigers are in first place in the AL Central, and the All-Star voters rewarded him by making him the starting catcher for his league. After putting up terrible numbers in part-time duty last year, he's hit with a vengeance this year, at least until the last couple of weeks. In 18 games this July, Avila is hitting .185/.353/.241 with no homers and no RBI. What happened? Well, partly, it's a correction for his early-season results: he was hitting way over his head, and this is the correction. His Batting Average on Balls in Play for the season is still a likely unsustainable .340, but at the end of June it was a sky-high .363. Over the last three weeks, his BABIP has been a .250, which means that his true BABIP is almost exactly in between -- like the league-average BABIP, which this year is .293. Avila is still having a terrific campaign overall, hitting for power and drawing walks, and Tigers fans should be very happy with him. But he was so hot early on that he was bound to get cold like this sooner or later. He's still a fine hitter.

Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers .299/.372/.448, 10 HR, 47 RBIs, 0 SB, 1 CS, 42 BB/78 K
Andre Ethier is having a fine season. In fact, even though he appears to be doing worse than last year — his OPS is 37 points lower, for example — he has actually been nearly equally effective, because offense is down across the league so much this year. (Park-adjusted stats such as OPS+ and wRC+ indicate that his performance is one to two percent worse this year than it was last year, and roughly equal to his average performance from 2008-2010, even though his OPS has actually decreased every year. That's because league offense has also decreased every year.)

Still, Andre is having a rough month, batting just .221/.308/.412 in July, and he's cooled off in general after a scorchingly hot April: he's only hitting .266/.341/.402 since May 1. Ethier was above .300 from April 2 to July 18, and as with Avila, it's very possible that Ethier has further to fall, as his BABIP continues to head southward to reach Ethier's career average. Despite the July slump, Ethier has a .355 overall BABIP this year, 33 points higher than his career average. Hs walk rate has remained consistent with previous years, even as his power has declined. (He hit 31 homers in 2009, then 23 last year, and he's on pace for 16 this year.) He's still  been amazingly consistent relative to the league, but this slump isn't anything he's doing wrong — it's just a natural regression to the mean.

Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners 8-7, 3.64 ERA, 123 2/3 IP, 3.30 FIP, 1.09 WHIP, 3.15 K/BB
The rookie is still having an amazing season, but — like many young rookie pitchers — he seems to have run into a bit of a midsummer wall. In 15 2/3 innings in his last three starts, one before the All-Star Break and two after, he has given up 19 earned runs on 21 hits including four homers. His strikeout and strikeout to walk rates have both still been good — just five walks against 17 strikeouts, more than one K an inning — but he's been absolutely hammered. It's not that he's lost fastball velocity, as his heater averaged 94.6 miles per hour in his last start, right around his season average. He may be losing command, or he may be getting unlucky. His recent run of poor outings should have little bearing on his long term future. But it should encourage the Mariners to think seriously about limiting his innings for the rest of the year. The 22-year old pitched just 47 1/3 innings in an injury-shortened 2009 and 139 1/3 innings in 2010, and if he keeps pitching at his current pace (he's averaging around 6.2 innings per start, and is on pace for about 32 starts this year), he'll log more innings in 2011 than in 2009 and 2010 combined. That is something the Mariners would probably rather avoid. Whether the midsummer slump is fatigue or something more sinister, Michael Pineda's golden arm should be handled with care.

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