Saturday, February 20, 2016

How Sorianesque Is Starlin Castro?

This summer, Yankees fans will ride a roller coaster of emotions every time they watch a talented middle infielder from the Dominican Republic, a player who has proven he can rake but couldn't quite cut it as a big-league shortstop. He will probably hit for a high average, but he'll drive us crazy by swinging at pitches in the dirt far too often. His bat speed will wow us, but his on-base percentage will vex us. He's got great speed, yet he doesn't provide as much value on the bases as you'd think.

Who did that paragraph just describe? If you said Starlin Castro, you'd be correct. You'd also be correct if you thought you'd traveled back in time 15 years to watch Alfonso Soriano.

From 2001-03, Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano was everything you'd want in a baseball player. At least that's what I thought when I was 15. He could hit every pitch hard -- well, every pitch he didn't swing and miss at. He could steal a base at will -- well, except for the double-digit caught stealing numbers he racked up. A former shortstop, he had a cannon for an arm and brought a lovely athleticism to second base -- yet he recorded negative defensive value in each of his first four seasons. He had wrists like Hank Aaron's, but a swing-and-miss habit to rival Dave Kingman's. Like that famous Vermeer painting, Soriano was a study in contrasts.

To a 15-year-old, Soriano seemed like one of the best players in baseball, just one tier down from Cyborg Barry Bonds. Soriano hit homers! He stole bases! He used one of the heaviest bats in the league, but he swung it faster than almost everyone else. He wore the same number that I did. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Latest Greatest Yankee." Watching his swing uncoil was like watching a mousetrap devastate its victim. He was pretty close to the baseball player I would have built from scratch.

However, in his first three full seasons, Soriano ranked 45th in MLB in total WAR, trailing teammates Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada.* He was a very good player, but those were lower WAR totals than you'd expect from guy who almost joined the 40-40 Club twice during that time period. (In his breakout years of 2002 and '03, Soriano's WAR was just a little more than half of what Mike Trout records in a typical season.) The primary culprits were Soriano's defense and on-base percentage. Despite his tremendous athleticism, he gave back much of his power and speed production through his poor play in the field (-23.9 defensive runs from '01-03) and his lack of patience at the plate (.326 OBP during that time).

*Good Lord, Yankees fans were spoiled back then. 

When the Yankees traded Sori for Alex Rodriguez before the 2004 season, I was actually a little bummed out. Sure, the Yanks had acquired the best player of his generation (and convinced him to switch positions!). But, boy, I was going to miss Soriano.

Photos via BleacherReport
Fast-forward to this winter. In early December, instead of sending away a talented-albeit-flawed young player, the Yankees acquired one. Starlin Castro looked like one of the brightest young stars in MLB during his age-21 season in 2011, when he slashed 207 hits and accumulated 3.0 WAR for the Cubs. The next year, he improved a bit on those rookie stats, mostly on the strength of strong defensive numbers. Yup, Castro was going to be a star whose name would make it easy for Chicago Tribune headline-writers for the next decade ("Star Power!", "A Rising Star", etc.). Castro was going to be the Cubs' Derek Jeter:

But then, he wasn't. In 2013, Castro struggled to a below-replacement .245/.284/.347 line, while in '14, he bounced back to above-average production. Still, like Soriano, Castro's surface-level traditional stats did not quite match the actual value he was providing. In '14, for instance, Castro hit .292 with 14 homers, a solid output for a modern-day shortstop. However, his underlying stats led to a modest WAR total of just 2.1 that season.

But it's not the full-season stats that make Castro an interesting player. It's the day-to-day drama that he brings to the field. And it reminds me a lot of Alfonso Soriano. As you'll see, the comparison between the two players is far from exact, but Castro has a chance to elicit the same type of excitement that Soriano brought to the Bronx.

Each time he steps to the plate, Castro has the capability to look like one of the most electric players in the league, or one of the most clueless. Remember Soriano frequently flailing at pitches in the dirt? Well...

In 2002, Soriano drew 22 unintentional walks while striking out 157 times (!). Castro's strikeout percentage has not been nearly as high as that, but there's still a lot of whiff in his game. In each of the last three seasons, he's struck out at least 15% of the time, not good for a guy with limited power. As they did with Soriano, those strikeout totals correspond to a low on-base rate. Even in his highly-productive 2011-12 seasons, Castro got on base at a less-than-ideal rate. Just as Soriano didn't reach base often enough, Castro's frequent two-hit days can't completely mask the fact that he rarely walks.

And when he does get on base, Castro has a frustrating tendency to run himself into outs. He led the National League by getting caught stealing 13 times in 2012, a statistic reminiscent of Soriano's double-digit caught stealing totals in the early 2000s. Castro has posted a negative baserunning value in each of his five seasons, a real accomplishment for a guy who's stolen 25 bases in a single season. Soriano was actually a much better baserunner than Castro, as he was the fourth-most valuable runner* in the league from 2001-03. Still, even if he wasn't a walking TOOTBLAN like Castro is, Soriano made his share of baserunning gaffes.

*Interestingly, the most valuable baserunner during that time was none other than current Yankees outfielder (and ancient relic) Carlos Beltran. 

Castro's baserunning is part of the reason his Fangraphs profile notes a "perceived lack of hustle," a charge sometimes leveled against Soriano when he was a Yankee (not to mention later in his career). Both guys have also been known to admire their not-quite-home-runs from time to time.

One of the most frustrating similarities between Soriano and Castro is their ability to make spectacular plays coupled with a penchant for boneheaded ones. While Soriano graded out as an atrocious, Todd Zeile-level defender, Castro has at least been respectable. (On average, Baseball-Reference sees Castro as a slightly below-replacement defender, whereas Fangraphs credits him with contributing value in the field.) Still, like Soriano, Castro was forced to move across the keystone from shortstop to second base, indicating that the Cubs and Yankees didn't think he could handle the more difficult position. (At least not as well as Addison Russell or Didi Gregorius.) And, like Soriano, you know the potential for better defense is there. Soriano's defense eventually got so bad that the Nationals moved him to left field in 2006, a position he manned for the remainder of his career. For Castro, though, there's still plenty of optimism that his defense won't hamper the team like Soriano's did.

Putting aside the statistical profiles and reputations of Castro and Soriano as young players, the aesthetics of their games are also similar in some ways. Both right-handed hitters had quick wrists and the ability to leg out hits, as well as the aptitude for hitting to all fields. Both also have stronger arms than the average second baseman.

Like Soriano, Castro has displayed a penchant for putting together ridiculous hot streaks. I vividly remember the beginning of the 2003 season, when Soriano came out of spring training destroying opponents like The Joker in the opening scene of The Dark Knight. Upon review, Soriano slashed .371/.435/.653 with nine homers and six stolen bases in April of that year. Sure, he hit .229/.290/.466 in the following month, but that's also kind of the point. He could thrill you, but he could also make you dream about giving him the Homer-on-Bart choking treatment. It's the sort of irritating inconsistency that fans rarely had to worry about with a player like Robinson Cano.

Castro has shown a similar ability for thrilling outbursts over short periods of time. Last year, he lost his shortstop job to Russell before bouncing back to hit .369/.400/.655 in September, even belting five homers in that stretch. Sure, many players benefit from random hot stretches each season, when factors like batted-ball luck and weak opponents bolster stats. But with guys like Soriano and Castro -- boom-or-bust athletes with some holes in their games -- those streaks can be much more pronounced.

Sure, there are also some substantial differences between the two players. Soriano didn't enter the majors until he was 23, whereas Castro was a 20-year-old wunderkind with the Cubs. Soriano possessed much more power, and Castro has hit for higher average. Additionally, in his first few seasons, Castro benefited from notably more batted-ball luck than Soriano ever experienced with the Yankees. Soriano's hard-hit percentage was 34th-highest in baseball from 2002-03*, while Castro has relied more on ground balls that find holes. However, the athleticism**, excitement, and occasional frustration that both guys bring to the table are unmistakable.

*Fangraphs began tracking hard-hit percentage in 2002, the penultimate year of Soriano's first stint with the Yankees.

**You've probably already figured out my decision to ignore Soriano's Methuselan stint with the Yanks in 2013-14, when fans were forced to watch him quickly decay like an unstable isotope.

Incidentally, in his farewell to the Cubs faithful on The Players' Tribune in early January, Castro named Soriano as one of his role models in Chicago. Castro would surely welcome comparisons to Soriano, who even acts as the godfather for Castro's son.

Soriano likely had a much better prime than Castro will ever experience in New York. While Castro appears to be a better fielder than Soriano was, Soriano produced so much value with his bat and legs that it would be almost impossible for Castro to match. However, even if Castro proves to be just a "poor man's" Soriano, the new arrival would make a lot of Yankees fans very happy.

Which brings me back to ... well, me. I'm really interested to see how I'll handle the daily ups and downs of rooting for Castro. Now that I'm twice as old as that teenager who loved Soriano, will I be as willing to ignore the bad to focus on the good? Or will the smarter, older me fixate on Castro's irritating drawbacks? If my more analytical mind can't get over Castro's on-base percentage to appreciate his youthful energy, what does that say about me as a fan?

I'm planning on enjoying Starlin Castro almost as much as I enjoyed the young Alfonso Soriano. I just really hope I'm able to.

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Follow Francis Tolan on Twitter @frantweet

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