Starlin Castro is the real deal
I'm going to be wrong about Starlin Castro.
At the onset of spring training -- the point at which we've already formulated our projections and rankings and taken stances on individual players -- I was a clear "nay" on Castro (at least for 2011). He had so many factors working against him. He's incredibly young (only 21 years, 34 days old). He had yet to show even a hint of power potential in four professional seasons, never once topping four. And he had a 51.3 percent ground ball rate as a rookie. He had trouble getting reads on pitchers while on the basepaths, getting caught eight of 18 times in 2010. He struggled a bit against right-handers, with .286 BA/.329 OBP/.372 SLG rates. And he finished his rookie campaign on a sour note, batting .186/.256/.214 in his final 20 games.
To all that, it's time to say, "Pshaw!"
TOP 125 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Castro had his backers during spring training, especially after he managed .348/.386/.621 offensive rates and four home runs in 66 at-bats in the exhibition season. Heck, in this space, even this skeptical columnist was beginning to buy in come Opening Day: "Just 21 years old, Castro has looked like a player far older and more experienced a legit big leaguer."
And that's really the point, isn't it? Things change quickly in this game. Players aren't forever locked into their roles, skill sets and predetermined values, and it's our job to adapt to those changes. It was the subject of Tuesday's 60 Feet 6 Inches, and it's the subject of today's Hit Parade -- always look for the subtle changes behind a player's unexpectedly hot or cold start.
Returning to my Castro questions, he's already providing answers:
• After four homers in those 66 spring training at-bats, he has one in 103 regular-season at-bats, and his isolated power, .108 as a rookie, has crept up slightly, to .117.
• He's picking up the pace on the basepaths, a perfect 4-for-4 in 23 games, and has already stated his desire to steal 25 to 30 bases this season.
• He's off to quite the hot start against righties, with .346/.370/.487 rates.
• He's off to a hot start overall, completely erasing any memory of a 2010 slump, with .350/.374/.466 numbers in his first 23 games.
Digging even deeper, Castro has made tremendous strides in terms of his contact ability, another positive sign in his development. He has struck out in only 4.9 percent of his at-bats, second-best among qualified hitters; has a 3.4 percent swing-and-miss rate, ninth-best in the majors; and 92.4 percent contact rate on all swings, seventh-best. More patience on pitches outside the strike zone has helped; Castro's 26.7 percent swing rate on those ranks 89th-lowest out of 187 qualified hitters and is an improvement on his rookie-year rate of 32.3 percent, which ranked him 107th-lowest of 149 qualified hitters.
He is a special hitter, and that he has done this as a 21-year-old shortstop is nothing short of remarkable. Should he bat .300-plus, which looks well within his reach, he'd be only the third shortstop in history to do that in his 20 and 21-year-old seasons. The first one to do it is in the Hall of Fame (Arky Vaughan) and the second almost certainly will be (Alex Rodriguez).
In other words, don't sell, because a .300 season with up to double-digit homers and 25-plus steals might be within Castro's reach.
Let's look at a few more hitters whose changes warrant further discussion:
Derek Jeter (oodles and oodles of ground balls): Depending on how closely you've been paying attention to Jeter's offensive problems, this is or isn't a surprise to you. But here are the numbers nonetheless: After having the highest ground ball rate of any qualified hitter in 2010 (65.7 percent), he's leading once again this season at 73.6 percent. He's also the major league leader in grounders with 53, per FanGraphs, putting him on pace for an outrageous 452. Jeter does have the speed to leg out infield hits, so his batting average should rise from its current .244, but at his current pace it should settle much closer to 2010's .270 than 2009's .334.
Brett Gardner (fewer pitches per plate appearance): Like Jeter, Gardner's disappointing finish to 2010 appears to have extended into 2011. During his breakout last year, Gardner developed a reputation for being one of the most patient, quickest players in the game. He had a .383 on-base percentage, 13.9 percent walk rate, major league-leading 4.61 pitches seen per plate appearance and swiped 47 bases. So far this season, he has a .190 on-base percentage, 6.2 percent walk rate, average of 4.14 pitches per PA and has three steals.
What changed? Gardner often seems too patient. His rate of first-pitch strikes (64.6 percent) is noticeably higher than 2010's 56.2, which shows that he's behind in the count often. Inside Edge backs up the notion that he could stand to be more aggressive: After managing a 31 percent chase percentage with two strikes, .317 OBP with two strikes and 27 percent strikeout rate in plate appearances that reached two strikes in 2010 -- all of those excellent numbers comparative to the major league average -- his numbers this year have dipped to 44 percent, .171 and 46 percent, each a rather poor number. Gardner might not actually be the on-base specialist he appeared in 2010, but rather a .250-hitting, .320-on-base option susceptible to platoon, meaning an uphill climb to the 30-steal plateau.
Logan Morrison (fly ball, isolated power bumps): He's on the disabled list for at least another week, but he's on this list because his DL status might actually provide the only buy-low window he'll have all season. Morrison, now 23, was finally starting to show hints of burgeoning power before getting hurt, and not merely because of his four homers in 15 games. He also had five doubles that helped fuel .309 isolated power, that number substantially higher than 2010's .164. And his 46.7 percent fly ball rate showed he was elevating the ball more than he did as a rookie (32.1 percent). Buy, buy, buy, and do it soon.
Colby Rasmus (improved plate discipline): A 31.9 percent strikeout rate in 2010, fifth-worst among qualified hitters, put Rasmus' batting average at risk and was one of the primary obstacles to his having a breakout season in 2011. Things are looking up in that category, however, as his 21.8 percent K rate is a substantial improvement, not to mention his increased walk rate (12.0 percent). Rasmus has the skills to easily reach the 20/20 club, with upside for more, and if he keeps making contact like this, he might bat .290 and become a top-25 hitter.
Gordon Beckham (eroding plate discipline): Ever have that feeling of déjà vu? Beckham, one of fantasy's most disappointing players the first half of 2010 (.216/.277/.304), is off to a comparably poor beginning to 2011. While his second-half rebirth a year ago might always keep his owners on the hook, it's understandable if those in shallow-mixed leagues bail soon. After all, Beckham is falling into bad habits: His 37.0 percent swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone ranks 19th-highest among qualified hitters, and his 12.4 percent swing-and-miss rate ranks 23rd-highest. He's also hitting a slew of infield popups, his 27.6 percent rate second-highest in the majors. Beckham might have a bright future ahead, but it's the distant future. Don't be so hasty to assume he's an ideal buy-low.
Jed Lowrie, Boston Red Sox: He finally cracks the Top 125 this week and needs be taken seriously in all fantasy formats, even though he has alternated starts at shortstop with Marco Scutaro since April 19. Lowrie's bat is simply too valuable for the Red Sox not to get into their lineup practically every day. He has .314/.391/.553 rates in 72 games between this and last season and a pace of 28 homers, 84 RBIs and 103 runs scored per 600 plate appearances. What's more, his plate discipline is outstanding, his walk rate at 10.9 percent and strikeout rate at 14.2 percent, meaning he is a player who should remain sound in batting average and be less prone to slumps that, if they happened, could threaten to return him to the bench. The Red Sox have noticed. They've even given Lowrie two starts at third base in the past week and should install him as their everyday shortstop if he keeps up this pace.
Russell Martin, New York Yankees: Fantasy baseball's top catcher (so far), Martin just keeps up the hot hitting, including a two-homer game on April 23 and a grand total of five hits and three walks in five games since our last Hit Parade. So far there hasn't been a hint of problem with his knee, which he had surgically repaired during the winter, and he's looking every bit as productive as he did during the earlier years of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Is it time to sell high? At the price of a No. 1 fantasy catcher or top-25 overall player or anything even close to those ranges, yes, but why assume this hot spell will fade quickly? After all, he had an OPS of .800 or greater before the All-Star break in each of his first three big league seasons, twice reaching double-digits in homers and steals, and has almost as good a career track record in May (.783 OPS) as April (.815). It's the second half that should trouble you: He had a lower OPS after the break than before it in each of his first four big league seasons (excluding 2010).
Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays: So cold a hitter for the season's first two weeks, and so hot a hitter for the past two. Is this what Zobrist has become, a "streaks" guy? Perhaps, because if you look at his 2010 he had a .914 OPS in May but .640 in July and .511 in August, and even in his breakout 2009 he had three straight months of an OPS north of 1.000, followed by two in the .800s. Still, the overall package is a worthy fantasy second baseman -- or outfielder if you prefer him there -- certainly capable of reaching the double-digits in homers (on pace for 33) and steals (pace of 22). Zobrist's 10.3 percent line-drive rate seems awfully low, and over time that's a number that tends to even out. When it does, expect his batting average to rise, as his .208 batting average on balls in play would suggest. You might be able to buy low on Zobrist if his owner is wary of his streakiness. If you can, go for it.
Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox: Streaky players who start the season cold can be incredibly frustrating, especially to their fantasy owners who lack patience. In Rios' case, he's as streaky as they come. He has played 20 or more games in 40 months during the course of his career, and in 10 of those his OPS has been .650 or worse; fortunately in 16 others his OPS was .800 or greater. Fortunately, there's little in Rios' numbers to suggest that his slow start is the product of declining skills, as his plate discipline appears unchanged and his .203 BABIP makes him appear mostly unlucky. Remember, it wasn't until May that he finally took off offensively in 2010, as he managed .277/.326/.470 rates last April before soaring to .319/.379/.545 in May and June combined. But as this is quickly shaping up as one of the worst months of his entire career -- his .466 OPS far from his next-worst (.527 in August 2006) -- Rios' owners are understandably concerned that he was over-drafted as a sixth-round pick (52nd overall, 54.3 ADP).
Nick Swisher, Yankees: Talk about disappointing starts. Swisher has gone 20 games so far without hitting a home run, after hitting but one in 20 games during spring training. One problem has been his difficulty hitting off-speed and breaking pitches, a scouting report that apparently has gotten into the hands of an increasing number of opponents. Per Inside Edge, Swisher has put only 33 percent of off-speed swings into play, noticeably beneath the big league average of 40 percent. Adjustments are always possible, but keep in mind this isn't a one-year aberration for him; he had 32, 33 and 29 percent rates in that department working backward three years. The ballpark and the lineup do help Swisher's cause in terms of homers and RBIs, but he might still be hard-pressed to repeat his 2010 numbers.
Delmon Young, Minnesota Twins: After such an outstanding 2010 and with him now smack-dab in his prime at 25 years old, Young's poor start is terribly frustrating. Like Swisher, he has yet to hit a home run, but unlike Swisher, Young had an outstanding spring training, with .396/.420/.646 numbers in 18 games. Not that you should've invested heavily in spring numbers, but with the way Young's career was trending wouldn't it be understandable to expect better things ahead? Apparently opponents were preparing for the same. The thing that most stands out is that opposing pitchers have thrown only 39.3 percent of pitches in the strike zone to Young, sixth-fewest in baseball among players with 60-plus plate appearances and down quite a bit from 2010's 46.5 percent. (That helps explain Young's career-high 7.9 percent walk rate so far.) Until he adjusts, Young's slump might last quite a bit longer than a mere month.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.