The Yankees have plenty of young talent on their roster, but because Starlin Castro is in his eighth season in the big leagues, it's easy to forget he's just 27 years old. Castro is in his baseball prime and based on his performance so far this season, he might be poised to tap into the potential some expected years ago.
At age-21 in 2011, Castro led the National League in hits (207) in just his second season and expectations heightened for the then-shortstop. Castro never reached the presumed zenith in Chicago and after a couple of rough seasons, he was traded to New York.
There were sparks in Castro's offensive game last season. He ripped 51 extra-base hits, including a career-high 21 home runs. However, Castro managed just a .300 OBP despite hitting .270. His walk rate in 2016 was an uninspiring 3.9 percent and his free-swinging approach at pitches outside the strike zone was occasionally detrimental to the club's rallies.
This season, Castro has been a force. In 158 plate appearances, he is hitting .340 (leads the Yankees) with a .373 OBP and a .527 SLG. His 51 hits is tied for the American League lead with two others and is one behind the MLB lead. Castro's 27 runs and 25 RBI are both tied for second on the club.
Castro's traditional stats look fantastic, but it's the peripheral numbers that tell the story for his current success. There has to be some sort of luck involved when any player goes through a long stretch of favorable outcomes, and Castro is getting a few extra knocks as his batting average on balls in play sits at .382. He holds a career .321 BABIP mark.
While there is some luck involved in Castro's hot start, his approach at the plate has changed for the better as well. He is still a free-swinger and has always made plenty of contact (career 82.2 percent contact rate). However, Castro is seeing more pitches per plate appearance (3.93) than at any time in his career and he's swinging at better pitches. Castro's 69.8 percent swing rate at balls in the zone is a career high and over five points higher than this career mark, according to PITCHf/x.
Castro is hitting .413 when the count is even (44 PA) and .417 (63 PA) when ahead in the count. That equates to 67.7 percent of plate appearances in which Castro is in a good count. Castro's walk rate (5.1 percent) is a tad bit higher than his career norm (4.8 percent), but this is more about getting the right pitch to hit than him trying to increase his free passes.
The result of Castro swinging at better pitches in a good count, combined with his already incredible contact rates is a line drive rate (22.1 percent) two points higher than his career norm and a ground ball rate which is a point lower (48.4 percent) than his career mark. Castro is also getting hits on infield grounders (11.9 percent). Those items combined certainly aid his higher than normal BABIP.
Of course, the question is whether Castro can keep this up throughout the season. He has been a streaky hitter in the past, but this seems like more than just a temporary boost. Nevertheless, the balls he puts in play will begin to find fielders, so it will be imperative for Castro to maintain the approach that got him to this point in the first place. If Castro gets antsy at the plate and begins swinging at fewer strikes, any skid will quickly morph into a prolonged slump.
Castro was once assumed to be headed for superstar status in Chicago. It is possible that experience, playing in his prime age and a desire to adhere to a new approach at the plate will elevate Castro to that status in 2017.