He's the youngest player in the majors, but Starlin Castro is already an old pro when it comes to putting the bat on the ball
The most impressive thing about Starlin Castro is how efficient he's been at the plate. A year ago, with 71 strikeouts and just 22 unintentional walks in 506 plate appearances, Castro, now 21, looked like another undisciplined, overeager youngster. Early this season, however, the youngest player in baseball has combined bat speed and a short stroke to be one of the most impressive contact hitters in the game. Just three hitters have a lower strikeout rate than Castro's 6.7% of at bats. Of the 12 players who have struck out in fewer than 10% of their at bats in 2011, Castro is by far the youngest and is one of just four in that group under 30.
Since the mound was lowered to its current height in 1969, only 25 players have qualified for the batting title in a full season at age 22 or younger while striking out 50 times or less. Of these, many were poor hitters who traded walks, power and even batting average for their contact ability. It's not just that Castro, who through Sunday was on pace for 50 K's this season, isn't striking out; it's that he's hitting the ball authoritatively when he makes contact, batting .336/.363/.445. The only players since 1969 with an .800 OPS at 22 or younger while striking out fewer than 50 times are a pair of Hall of Famers: George Brett in 1975 and Paul Molitor in '79.
Castro isn't walking much—he has four free passes this season. That low rate, however, stems from the same skills that his contact rate does. He's not a hacker at all, swinging at fewer than half the pitches he sees. When Castro offers, he tends to make hard contact—connecting on 91.3% of his swings—and rarely gets deep into an at bat. It's working for him, with line drives on 22.5% of balls he puts in play, an excellent rate.
The next challenge for Castro will come as the league adjusts to him. As pitchers throw him fewer strikes, will he take the walks, or will he go out of the zone more, making less solid contact in pressing to get base hits? His improvement from ages 20 to 21 is an indication that Castro is capable of making adjustments and becoming one of the best hitters in baseball.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH