Starlin Castro, The Leadoff Spot, And Josh Hamilton

Jonathan Daniel

You're thinking the three things mentioned in the headline have little or nothing to do with each other. But that isn't so.

Since Starlin Castro was moved back to the leadoff spot August 21, he is hitting .279/.348/.443 in 69 plate appearances. That includes four doubles, two home runs and five walks, with nine strikeouts. That's at least closer to his career norms coming into this season; overall in 2013 batting in the No. 1 spot, Castro is hitting .284/.349/.446 in 83 PA. In his career hitting leadoff, Castro's numbers: .319/.340/.438 in 332 plate appearances.

All of these numbers are by far the best Castro hits in any batting-order spot.

I can hear your comments now: "But Castro won't develop any power hitting leadoff!" "But he's not a prototypical leadoff man!" "But that OBP is too low!" "But that's not a big enough sample size!"

These comments have some validity, to be sure. Nevertheless, if it appears clear that a player has success batting in a certain spot in the order -- and doesn't do well hitting in other places -- shouldn't the best thing be to just keep him where he does best?

Sure, if the Cubs someday acquire a "prototypical" leadoff hitter -- you know, the guy who draws 100 walks a year and/or steals tons of bases -- by all means, move Castro somewhere else. In the meantime, the major-league average OBP in 2013 of players hitting leadoff is .329. I'll take a .340-plus leadoff OBP from Castro, because it also appears to come with an increase in power.

What does this have to do with Josh Hamilton? I saw a connection of sorts when I read this Jayson Stark article about Hamilton which asked, in effect, why Hamilton has had such a poor year with the Angels. This part of it caught my eye:

"Josh is a guy who needs support," Josh's friend said. "He needs a loose manager who will embrace him at every turn. … I'm not saying Mike Scioscia can't [provide that support]. I'm saying it's possible that any manager, other than Ron Washington and maybe Joe Maddon or Clint Hurdle, could have given him the kind of support he's used to."

So what has happened since Hamilton left his unique cocoon in Texas is nobody's "fault." The Angels, from all accounts, have done everything they could do to replicate the support system he'd had the previous five seasons in Texas -- including bringing over his "accountability partner," Shayne Kelley, as a staff assistant.

What they've found out, though, is that some things in life can't be replicated.

It's no one's "fault" that Hamilton found himself walking into a tumultuous environment that was very different from what he was used to. But here's what he encountered when he did:

Big expectations, colored by dollar signs and the disappointments of 2012. … A more diverse, less nurturing clubhouse. … A manager, in Scioscia, with a harder edge, a different style and a less comfortable relationship with his front office. … And a fan base that didn't know this man, hadn't reveled in any of his MVP greatness and couldn't possibly be as patient as the mostly adoring masses in Texas he'd left behind.

The article has much, much more on how Hamilton had the perfect support system while playing for the Rangers, and much as they've tried to replicate that in Anaheim, it doesn't always work. I suggest that much the same thing has happened to Albert Pujols with the Angels; had Pujols stayed in St. Louis, where he was a franchise icon second only to Stan Musial, Cardinals fans might have been forgiving of the decline and the injuries, because they already had two World Series titles with him, all the MVP awards, and multiple playoff seasons.

Angels fans don't have that. All they have with Pujols and Hamilton is injuries, failure and two consecutive years out of the postseason, and those contracts are going to start getting more expensive as those players get older. It could get real ugly in Anaheim.

The point of all this isn't the contracts; the point is that you can't simply plug numbers in somewhere just because you think they might work, or sign a free-agent deal for the most money thinking you'll buy yourself happiness. For various reasons -- and I strongly urge you to read the entire Stark article -- those things often don't work.

Which brings me back to Starlin Castro. The change in Castro's demeanor on the playing field was evident the second he was placed back in the leadoff spot; he hadn't hit there on a regular basis since late in the 2011 season, mostly because of the acquisition of David DeJesus. DDJ posted a .358 OBP batting leadoff for the Cubs in 2012 and a .346 OBP in the No. 1 spot in 2013. Those are reasonably good numbers -- but Castro's numbers are pretty close to that, with more power. Further, Castro seems more confident in the field over the last few weeks. That shouldn't necessarily be related to simply moving in the batting order, but on the other hand, when a player has a comfort zone somewhere, it can easily carry over into the rest of his game, in my view.

The point might be as simple as, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Starlin Castro had several hundred plate appearances' worth of major-league success hitting in the No. 1 spot. I hope management now realizes that's where Castro fits best in the Cubs' lineup and simply leaves him there.

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