Cubs’ Starlin Castro could be saved by his clutch at-bats


Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro is making a case for getting off the trade block as he continues to deliver clutch hits late in games. Should his body of work in the clutch in 2015  save his job with the North Siders?

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Castro has a total of three game-winning base hits this season. The first occurred on April 18 against the San Diego Padres.

On Sunday night, Starlin Castro blasted a 1-1 pitch in the bottom of the 11th inning into the gap in left-center field to score Chris Coghlan and give the Cubs a 2-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

The night before the script was very much the same. Castro broke a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the ninth by slamming a 1-0 pitch into center field that scored Kris Bryant from second base.

At this point, the Cubs have to consider Starlin Castro as a long-term option because of his ability to hit in the clutch.

Advanced statistics show that Castro’s numbers rise in situations considered “clutch at-bats”.

According to Baseball Reference, Castro’s batting line also improves in the later innings of the game. In the ninth inning of ballgames, his line this season is .435/.458/.609. In extra inning at-bats, his batting line rises to .571/.700/.571.

The lower slugging percentage in extras compared to ninth-inning at-bats means that he is hitting more extra base hits in the ninth inning than extras. Castro’s overall batting line during the 2015 season is .268/.301/.358.

Castro also hits extremely well with runners in scoring position. According to Yahoo! Sports, his batting line in such situations is .280/.329/.320. Once again, it’s higher than his overall batting line – excluding the slugging percentage. It is worth mentioning that with bases loaded Castro has three hits and six RBI in nine attempts. In situations that B/R defines as “late and close,” Castro is batting .292/.346/.292.

As a team, the Chicago Cubs haven’t performed well in clutch situations so Castro’s presence on the roster is important in that respect as well. According to data compiled by Team Rankings, the Cubs rank fifth-to-last in Major League Baseball in average number of runners stranded per game at 3.74. The Cubs rank 23rd in the Major Leagues in team batting average with runners in scoring position with a collective .235.

The Chicago Cubs need to get better in these clutch at-bats if they hope to seriously compete for a World Series championship. Whether their breakthrough occurs this season or somewhere down the line, it is clear that trading away one of their best clutch at-bat performers doesn’t help in accomplishing this goal.

In the last 10 years, there has been a strong correlation between championship success and ability to hit with runners in scoring position. Six of the last ten World Series Champions have been in the top 10 in the Major Leagues during the regular season in batting average with runners in scoring position. Even more telling is that five out of these six teams were within the top five in this statistical category.

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Clutch hitting is hard to teach because it is highly dependent on confidence. Coaches can work on improving approach, but when it comes down to it the hitter has to be confident in their approach to read a pitch successfully and put a good swing on it.

That is why trading Castro for a hitter that is better statistically than him isn’t a guaranteed upgrade. Jon Doyle of confirms that clutch hitting is largely a byproduct of mental approach.

"So, why can some guys make clutch situations look like batting practice, while others choke time and time again? The secret? It’s all upstairs, my friend. The higher you advance in baseball, the more true this becomes.  In fact, the biggest reason for success in the Majors after staying healthy is proper mental strength and ability."

The main argument used to justify trading Castro is the influx of young talent in the infield. Put simply, there may not be enough room for Castro on a future roster. Javier Baez and 2015 first round draft pick Ian Happ are still waiting in the wings in the minor league system and upon their call-up they will likely command positions in the infield as well.

However, if Castro continues to hit like this in key situations, he will retain value and should stay with this team. A decision to move Castro to second base or even convert him into an outfielder might be the way to go because they are less challenging positions to field. Castro has 13 errors at shortstop this season which is the third-worst mark in the Major Leagues at this position.

Despite evidence to the contrary, ESPN Chicago Cubs reporter Jesse Rogers still believes that Castro is expendable.

"And therein lies the difference between Russell, Bryant and Castro. The former two players get a break because (1) they’re rookies and (2) they’re rookies. On top of it, Russell is new to second and it shows. Plus, Bryant will get plenty of breaks on defense over the years because his offense will make up for it. On the other hand, Castro has had five years to move past the routine errors. If Russell — or even Bryant — are making these kinds of miscues in 2020 then they’ll hear it from whatever form of social media exists then as well.What’s the stepping stone for Castro? There’s no doubting he cares, but for every few spectacular plays he makes on defense there’s always the routine error. No one is saying the Cubs should make a move now, but Russell’s worth diminishes at second while Castro simply isn’t in Russell’s league at shortstop."

This piece was written by Rogers on May 20. A lot has changed since then.

Castro batted .221/.264/.274 in the month of May, but has rebounded to post a .280/.308/.460 clip in June. Is it enough of an improvement to take his name off of the trade block? Do Castro’s hitting abilities cancel out his struggles at shortstop?

These are important questions that the Chicago Cubs need to ask themselves before deciding to trade Castro.

Next: Schwarber promoted from Double-A Tennessee