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A Cautionary Tale Regarding Starlin Castro

Why isn't Starlin Castro hitting? Maybe the Cubs are trying to make him into something he can't be. And there's something about the career of Jeff Francoeur that could be an important lesson for Theo & Co.


SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cubs' new management regime wants more players with plate discipline, to run longer counts and draw more walks. Last month, Theo Epstein was quoted in this regard:

"There is certainly a snakebit quality to it with respect to our timing," team President Theo Epstein said. "But to me the biggest factor is our inability to draw walks and to get on base overall. On-base skills translate to run-scoring much more than slugging skills.

"To be blunt, we haven't made much progress improving the on-base skills of some of the players here. If we can't make improvements with the existing group, we will have to be even more aggressive acquiring players with on-base skills."

Before I get to the point here, let me make it clear: I agree with Theo that an ability to have better on-base skills is important. But it's clear to me that when he was talking about "the existing group", among the players he was most specifically referring to was Starlin Castro.

Under the previous regime -- and note, this is not intended to be any sort of praise for nor endorsement of them -- Castro hit .304/.343/.422 (2010 and 2011 combined) with an OPS+ of 106. Since the start of 2012, Castro is hitting .266/.304/.396 (OPS+ 88), and he's having a particularly bad season this year, .233/.266/.328, OPS+ of 62 through Sunday.

It appears clear to me that the current regime is trying to change Castro's approach and get him to take more pitches, work more counts, and draw more walks. It's equally clear to me that it isn't working, and that they have taken a player who hit for a high average -- .304 over 1137 at-bats for two full seasons, a fairly large sample size -- and turned him into someone who's questioning his own natural abilities and talents during almost every at-bat.

What does this have to do with Jeff Francoeur? My friend Grant Brisbee wrote this summary of Frenchy's career, which, among other things, notes that Francoeur's production over the first 23 games of his career was better than that of Yasiel Puig's first 23 games (through last Thursday). If you think Puig is headed for superstardom, Francoeur was expected to be better than that. What happened?

Teams thought Francoeur should have more plate discipline. Francoeur wanted to have more plate discipline. Brisbee wrote:

I remember another quote -- possibly apocryphal, because I can't find it now -- that described Francoeur as teary-eyed when it came to the subject of his poor plate discipline.

Brisbee continues, and here's the salient point of his essay:

But what Francoeur represents to me is the manifestation of this idea: Plate discipline isn't about going up to the plate and thinking, "Don't swing don't swing don't swing." It's about the millisecond between swing and take. Some players have neurons that fire quickly enough to make that millisecond count. Some don't.

Some players have that electrical flash when their muscles start to contort in response to a slider that has a chance to bounce in the other batter's box. If you entered the chemical reaction into Google Translate, it would translate into "No." Jeff Francoeur didn't have that flash, that chemical reaction. There was nothing stopping the chain reaction of muscular activity that happened between initial pitch recognition and the decision to swing. Nothing will ever stop it. And when reaction time slows with age, it gets worse.

It's not because of a lack of desire or a stupid approach, though. Jeff Francoeur had five tools, but he lacked the sixth one. And while you (maybe) can lift weights to get more power and (possibly) work on swing mechanics to produce more contact, that split second of yes/no will forever be elusive. It's still possible that Francoeur can help a big-league team in some capacity. But it won't be because of a new, patient approach. Guys like him remind us that it's not always a matter of practicing hard and doing the right thing.

Bingo bingo BINGO. (Sorry for the huge blockquote, but it's all important.) It strikes me that Starlin Castro is exactly like Jeff Francoeur, at least in that one sort of talent. He's got muscle memory and pitch recognition that allowed him to become a .300 hitter in the big leagues at age 20, and do it for well over one thousand at-bats.

And now -- two years later, and another nearly thousand at-bats later -- Theo & Co. want to turn Castro into an on-base machine? After 2,000 major-league at-bats for Castro, I submit that, as for Francoeur, it simply ain't gonna work.

What's wrong with having a slashing line-drive .300 hitter whose on-base percentage is above .340, and who hits for a little bit of power (.422 SLG over those first two years)? Not everyone can sit and take pitch after pitch after pitch. Some hitters just aren't wired that way. To me, it appears that Starlin Castro is one of those hitters.

I'm no hitting coach, but if I were advising the Cubs on Castro, I'd tell them to let him go back to what got him to the big leagues. He's clearly overthinking and not using his natural abilities and muscle memories to their utmost. And do it now, before he winds up as the next Jeff Francoeur.