Tag Archives: baseball

Why the Cubs should move Starlin Castro to the OF

23 Nov
Chicago Cubs shortstop prospect Starlin Castro.

Starlin Castro as a prospect

Most people, particularly in the media, love Starlin Castro. While some even dubiously proclaim Castro as the next Ernie Banks, count me as someone who’s not quite as impressed with Castro. While Castro accomplished an impressive feat in ringing up 207 hits in 2011, he needed 674 at-bats (the second-highest in the majors) to do so. In addition, Castro has nowhere near Banks’ power: Castro hit 13 home runs in his first 1137 at-bats while Banks hit 21 home runs in 509 fewer at-bats than Castro. Could Castro develop power later in his career, as some hope? Possibly, though history shows power doesn’t usually develop later unless steroids is involved.
The lack of power isn’t a real concern. But Castro’s iron glove and wild arm is. The 21-year-old Dominican led the majors in 2011 with an amazing 29 errors, proving that his 27 errors in 2010 (second-worst in MLB) was no fluke. FanGraphs posted Castro’s UZR (an advanced fielding metric that estimates a fielder’s defensive contribution compared to a league-average fielder) as -8.7, second-worst in the majors among regular shortstops. His defensive liabilities offset some of his offensive contributions.

Merely accepting Castro’s defensive limitations should not be an option. The question is: what can the Cubs do then?

What to do with Castro?

Some have bandied the idea of trading Castro. It’s not a bad idea. If everyone else is enamored with Castro, why not trade him while his value is sky high and get a bunch of top prospects? After all, the Cubs need help at a lot of positions and you could fill several of those voids with one trade. As the Chicago Tribune reminded, the Rays got several exciting prospects and a major-league defensive contributor when they sent Matt Garza to the Cubs, and the Royals got several top prospects and a major-league defensive contributor when they traded Zach Greinke. Just don’t trade Castro for a couple middle-tier prospects. If Theo Epstein is like Tampa Bay’s shrewd GM Andrew Friedman, then he’ll require multiple highly significant prospects for Castro.

But Castro staying with the Cubs is probably the most likely scenario. Epstein has compared Castro’s defensive issues with an early Derek Jeter, implying that Castro too can eventually win five Gold Gloves as Jeter has. Epstein’s comments are puzzling since he, a sabermetrician, should know that sabermetrics clearly reveals Jeter to have performed well below average for nearly his entire career in baseball (or as one blogger succinctly wrote, “Derek Jeter is a crappy fielder“). Just this past summer, Jeter was dead-last in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved, a metric used to evaluate how many runs a player saved or hurt his team compared to an average player at the position) among regular shortstops (-18), worse than even Castro (-16). In 2010, the last year Jeter won a Gold Glove, he had the fourth-worst shortstop DRS at -13. While Jeter has earned his Gold Gloves for his reputation on some flashy plays, Baseball Prospectus’ James Click cautioned in an article entitled “Did Derek Jeter Deserve The Gold Glove” (the answer is no), “While spectacular effort is a joy to watch, it should not be confused with results.” As performance analysts know, Jeter isn’t even the best SS on his own team (that would be Alex Rodriguez).

Where should Castro play?

The Cubs could keep Castro at SS, but why put up with the defensive struggles when you can minimize it? This was an argument Click made about Jeter, stating that the Yankees should have moved Jeter to CF and put Rodriguez back at SS. While some suggest moving Castro to 3B, I suggest the Cubs remove him out of the infield completely and put him in the outfield.

On occasion, Castro shows a flair for the spectacular play but far too often fails to make the routine play. In general, moving a shortstop to 3B will slightly improve that player’s defensive contribution by 1.9 runs per year. However, it’s uncertain if a fielder as bad as Castro will see that slight improvement. Since Castro bungles grounders and slings wild throws from the shortstop position, it’s quite possible he will also bungle grounders and sling wild throws from the third base position. In fact, it could potentially be even uglier at third base when Castro also must charge bunts/slow rollers and then hurry a throw to 1B.

Moving Castro to the OF instead of 3B would limit damage because not all errors are equal. Outfield errors are rarely on dropping catchable fly balls but instead due to bad throws and bad fielding. Thus, outfield errors almost never turn sure outs into baserunners; rather, the baserunners already exist but they get an extra base or two on a bad throw or poor fielding of a grounder.

On the other hand, shortstop errors always turn routine outs into baserunners. Since baseball’s two most precious commodities are runs and outs, shortstop errors negatively affect both. Not only does the defense not reduce one of the offense’s 27 precious outs, but the offense now also has a runner on base that should not have been there, which in turn creates a higher likelihood for the offense to score runs (run expectancy is always higher with a man on base than with bases empty). Indeed, Castro’s DRS for 2011 was -16, again second-worst among all regular shortstops and far below the average shortstop, the Angels’ Erick Aybar. Baseball Prospectus has shown that moving a SS to LF improves the team’s defense by an average 4.8 runs per year. With Castro, this number would be higher.

So why not put Castro in CF, where his strong arm could be an asset? The main reason is that Tony Campana is a known commodity at CF as a strong defender with great speed and great range, two important qualities for CF. Replacing Soriano, with his marginal arm, with Castro in LF would be a better option defensively.

My suggested defensive changes

In 2011, the predominant Cubs defense, based on innings played, was (DRS/UZR in parentheses):

– 2B: Darwin Barney (-4/+5.1)
– SS: Starlin Castro (-16/-8.7)
– LF: Alfonso Soriano (-5/+3.4)
– CF: Marlon Byrd (-2/+2.2)
– RF: Tyler Colvin (+3/+4.6)

Check out all those negative DRS figures. No wonder the 2011 Cubs defense was so awful.

One suggested defense for 2012 could be (2011 DRS/UZR in parentheses):

– 2B: DJ LeMahieu (+1/+0.8)
– SS: Darwin Barney (+1/+1.0)
– LF: Starlin Castro
– CF: Tony Campana (+2/+4.3)
– RF: Tyler Colvin (+3/+4.6)

The Cubs could then put Marlon Byrd (who was -2/+2.2 in CF in 2011) at 1B, resolving the issue of finding a first baseman. This suggestion would significantly upgrade its defense not only at SS but in many other positions on the field. In addition, learning a new position would be kept to a minimum (a minor adjustment for Barney; while Castro would be learning an entirely different position, it’s an easier position to learn, as would be the case for Byrd learning 1B). And what’s more, this suggestion would substantially upgrade the entire defense without having to trade away any prospects or spend one cent on a free agent.

Glaringly, the biggest problem with this suggested defense is that it puts Alfonso Soriano and his offensive production on the bench. But this would only be one problem for Epstein to resolve, compared to trying to resolve multiple glaring problems, any one of which could spell doom for the Cubs in a close game (the team was 25-28 in one-run games in 2011) or turn a close game into an uncontested loss.

Moving Castro to the OF may seem radical but when the status quo clearly isn’t working, why not put all options on the table? If the Cubs want to seriously compete for a championship, it cannot afford 25-30 errors at the most important position on the field.

Your turn

What do you think? Do you like the idea of moving Castro to the OF? Or do you think Castro should stay at SS and can someday improve from “near league worst” to “average”?

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Why Robin Ventura will fail as White Sox manager

11 Nov

Finding an article critical of the White Sox hiring Robin Ventura as manager is harder than finding an article complementary of Adam Dunn. So allow me to be presumably the first writer to unequivocally say that Robin Ventura will  be a flop as White Sox manager. Here’s why:

Experience is king.

As a youth baseball coach, I’ve discovered there are a myriad of decisions that you have to make, from drafting to preseason preparation to in-game strategy to handling players to postseason planning. Sometimes you’ll face a new situation you hadn’t handled before and make a mistake in the choice you make to address that situation. While major league players need less coaching than youth players, major league managers still have a lot of decisions to make…sometimes just in one inning! Learning from your mistakes (and your successes) is crucial to building your managerial database.

Yet Ventura has no managerial database. That’s because he has no managerial experience. Heck, he doesn’t even have any coaching experience. At any level. Not even Little League. In fact, Ventura once said he didn’t have any desire to manage or coach. With that kind of resume, you and I are just as (if not more) qualified to coach the White Sox as Ventura.

Yes, I realize Ventura has played for Bobby Valentine and Joe Torre, and the argument goes that Ventura surely will have learned something from his former managers. But playing for a manager only means you know how they run spring training, not how they think strategy, how they make decisions, etc.

The greenest of greenhorns who is learning everything for the first time in real-time is unlikely to be successful in that gig. Perhaps in Ventura’s second or third managerial opportunity he’ll be successful, but this first job with the White Sox has ‘disaster’ written in big bold letters via permanent marker. You can take that prediction to the bank. Name any successful manager, whether old-school or modern-day…Torre, Joe Maddon, Billy Martin, Ron Washington, Tommy Lasorda, Tony LaRussa, Terry Francona, Charlie Manuel, Bobby Cox, newcomer Kirk Gibson, Sparky Anderson, or even Ventura’s predecessor Ozzie Guillen…they’ve all gotten some kind of coaching experience prior to becoming a manager. Cubs baseball president Theo Epstein (inadvertently?) took a swipe at the White Sox and Ventura when he said the Cubs next manager must have major league coaching experience.

Every opinion posted about Ventura’s hiring can be classified as “cautiously optimistic“. Yes, such writers know that Ventura has no managerial or coaching experience but these optimistic articles invariably hinge on some combination of the following two arguments: (1) he is a fan favorite/nice guy, and (2) Ventura should earn respect from players in the clubhouse based on his own excellent player stats. I’ll address these arguments in a moment.

So why did GM Kenny Williams hire Ventura?

If experience is king and Ventura has no experience, then why would Williams hire Ventura, and why isn’t anyone else critical of the Ventura hiring?

Let’s address that second question first. First, Ventura’s hiring is quite possibly the first ever of its kind in hiring someone with zero coaching experience at any level to run a major league club. That means there is no history with which to make comparisons. Without any precedent to analyze, people are hesitant to make critical judgments because, for all we know, Ventura could succeed and thus prove that experience is overrated.

Second, Ventura was a fan favorite when he was a player so people can’t bring themselves to criticize him; instead, cautious supporters argue that no one should be able to criticize Ventura since they contend there’s no way to know if he’ll succeed or fail.

As for why Ventura was hired, I have two thoughts on that. First, many have speculated that Williams wanted somebody who was the opposite of Guillen. The thought is that people hire a loud guy (e.g. Guillen) after firing a quiet guy (e.g., Jerry Manuel), and they’ll hire a quiet guy (e.g., Ventura) after firing a loud guy (e.g., Guillen). But I think it’s deeper than that. Guillen and Williams were known to have feuds, and I suspect Williams hired Ventura because Ventura will be more of a ‘yes man’ than Guillen. That’s not to say Ventura will be Williams’ puppet, but Ventura is expected to be much more in lockstep with Williams than Guillen or even someone like Tampa Bay’s Dave Martinez or Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar Jr, two perceived White Sox managerial candidates.

Second, Ventura comes cheap. Very cheap. Since Ventura has no experience (gee, I see a recurring theme here), he won’t ask for much money, which is great for the White Sox since their payroll is weighed down by big contracts for Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy. While Ventura’s financial contract details were not disclosed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the salary was one-third what a Dave Martinez or Sandy Alomar, Jr. would have commanded.

The fact that Kenny Williams considered current Sox first baseman Paul Konerko to be player-manager tells me all I need to know about Ventura as Williams’ managerial choice. Konerko too would have been a Williams ‘yes man’ and would have only needed a modest bump in salary. From where I sit, control and cheap salary were Kenny Williams and Jerry Reinsdorf’s two foremost requirements for the next Sox manager, not credentials.

Hey, doesn’t Ventura’s fan favorite status, player history or leadership count for something as a manager?

Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf pointed to Ventura being a “born leader” as one reason Reinsdorf believed Ventura would be a successful manager. Others argue that Ventura’s excellent player stats will gain him some respect in the clubhouse.

Ultimately, though, leadership doesn’t help win games; smart decision-making does. And while I agree Ventura’s glory days as a player likely will give Ventura some respect in the clubhouse, that respect will erode quickly if the White Sox aren’t winning games…and winning games will be challenging for someone who has (here it comes again) zero coaching experience.

What’s more, success as a player has no correlation to success as a manager. None of the aforementioned successful MLB managers had the gaudy player stats Ventura has. Some, like Joe Maddon, didn’t even make it to the bigs.

However, fan favorite status does come in handy in one area: helping deflect media & fan criticism of Kenny Williams for any cheap Sox hire…hence Ventura and Konerko as Williams’ candidates.

Your turn

What do you think? Do you think Ventura will be a successful manager with the White Sox? Do you think experience is overrated? Are you aware of MLB managers who have had no coaching experience yet succeeded?