There are moments at the plate that can get downright ugly for Starlin Castro. The Washington Nationals’ second baseman might lunge, completely unbalanced, for a ball and whiff on a swing.
His next hack, though, can be pristine, erasing the bad taste of the flail one pitch earlier. Or, like Castro did Wednesday night against St. Louis during a spring training game, he’ll somehow keep his hands back despite the rest of his body falling forward, allowing him to hit a triple even without textbook mechanics.
“You can’t really teach that,” manager Dave Martinez said. “His bat-to-ball skills are incredible.”
The Nationals like easily repeatable swings and a sense of certainty at the plate. But Castro is in a land of his own, where the unorthodox still reaps results. So Martinez isn’t going to mess with what the 30-year-old does at the plate.
Instead, he’ll sit back and watch Castro work in his own way. With Castro back healthy after breaking his wrist 16 games into the 2020 season — his first with Washington — he can be a key middle-of-the-order bat for Martinez to enjoy, driving in runs no matter how he might look doing so.
“When he keeps his legs underneath him, he’s able to keep his hands back,” Martinez said. “That’s what makes him good. You see him lunge at a ball, his hands stay back. So he’s able to still hit a ball pretty solid.”
That’s been the case throughout Castro’s 11-year career, beginning with the Chicago Cubs.
He’s a four-time All-Star who has hit below .265 just once in the major leagues. Castro holds a career .280 batting average and .733 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
And while there are knocks against him for his low walk totals, Martinez said Castro’s ability to put the ball in play makes up for some of that. Castro has made contact on 81.6% of his swings during his career. In 2019, his last full season, Castro managed hard contact on 41.9% of his swings, according to FanGraphs. Just 15.9% of his swings yielded soft contact.
But Castro can sometimes get his bat on too many pitches. Over 30% of Castro’s swings come on pitches outside the zone, and while he makes contact on 68.7% of those tries, that doesn’t lend itself to as many hard-hit balls.
“If he shrinks his zone just a little bit and gets some better pitches to handle, you’ll see his power be there, you’ll see everything come together,” hitting coach Kevin Long said. “But the thing you can’t teach is guys’ barrel awareness and barrel-to-ball skills and he’s got that, which makes him an extremely talented hitter.”
In Castro’s first 16 games in 2020 before breaking his wrist, he hit .267 with three doubles, a triple and two home runs. He hardly got going before his season was cut short, but Castro was pushing to return for the postseason if Washington had made it.
The team didn’t, though, so Castro had a full offseason to prepare for the upcoming campaign. Martinez pushed him to work on his agility and movement before arriving to camp, and the manager likes what he sees on that front, too. But with so few games under his belt as a National, Castro’s practically a new commodity in the lineup, and he’s eager to fans what they missed last season.
“They don’t know,” Castro said last month. “Because especially with a short season last year, and then I got hurt — I think I played 16-17 games — they don’t know me yet.”
General manager Mike Rizzo echoed that sentiment, calling Castro “kind of a forgotten guy.”
But Washington hasn’t forgotten why they signed Castro in the first place. He’s a “professional hitter,” as Rizzo called him, with long-standing consistency at the plate — even if his mechanics can change swing to swing.
“We don’t want him to change anything about him,” Martinez said. “He’s got unbelievable bat-to-ball skills. He’s a guy who’s gonna hit in the middle of our lineup and do some damage for us.”