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August 23, 2011

The BP Broadside

Catch a Falling Starlin

by Steven Goldman

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On Sunday night, ESPN and Bobby Valentine did a great job picking up Starlin Castro’s general indifference to what was happening on the field. “This was a teaching moment,” Valentine said, and he was entirely correct. This is one of those few areas where old-time baseball modes of behavior were vastly superior to those we observe today.

It is always shocking to me today when you look into the dugout and you see the manager, a couple of coaches, and a small handful of players. Where is everybody? We are told that some are in the clubhouse watching video, some are taking practice swings in the indoor batting cages, some getting treatment from the trainers. Some are… well, we don’t know, but we’re supposed to believe they’re all industriously applying themselves to the game, only out of sight. We have to take their word for that, though intuitively we know it can’t be completely true—do you always apply yourself with 100 percent concentration when your boss isn’t watching?

We also have one manager on record complaining about the empty dugout phenomenon. When Joe Torre was with the Yankees, he looked around one day when the team was at bat and realized that the only person in the dugout was him and the batter in the hole. Thereafter, he apparently restricted mid-inning trips to the clubhouse, perhaps by a system of hall and bathroom passes.

This is a vast change from the culture of the game in its early days. If you read reminiscences of players who were with John McGraw, they all remark about how they had to play close attention to the game state because McGraw might quiz them at any time. McGraw coached the game on his feet, pacing up and down the dugout, bat in hand. The bat was part of McGraw’s system for giving signals rather than a weapon of intimidation, but it must have functioned that way as well. If he saw a player was inattentive, he would pounce on him and ask him what the score was, the inning, the count on the batter, and woe unto the player who could not answer correctly.

Looking back, it’s easy to dismiss this as another aspect of the petty tyrant behavior that clouded McGraw’s later years, but that’s too easy. McGraw was trying to build and maintain a winning culture, one in which the players shared a common focus and intensity and were not just playing the game but thinking about it—during the hours at work, your job is baseball, and that means concentrating regardless of whether you’re at bat, in the field, or on the bench.

Think what you will of that, but before coming to a final judgment, consider that while McGraw had some great stars like Christy Mathewson and Mel Ott, and some very good players who were not at that level, such as Dave Bancroft and Bill Terry, he got as much or more mileage out of players you’ve never heard of, especially those who had been troubled or difficult personalities on other teams. He won with the severely alcoholic Bugs Raymond and Phil Douglas in his starting rotations. He took on Turkey Mike Donlin whenever Donlin was willing to play baseball, even though he was a violent borderline sex offender with an acting bug, because he was a crazy-good hitter, and McGraw figured he could keep him focused long enough for him to be useful. The Phillies thought Irish Meusel was disruptive and Casey Stengel a malingerer. McGraw took them both and won three straight pennants with them in the outfield. Baseball said that Hal Chase was a crook. McGraw signed him—and he was still a crook; they didn’t all work out.

Still, the environment McGraw created required even the most recalcitrant ballplayer to be alert, and it paid off. Heywood Broun wrote that McGraw, “could take kids out of the coal mines and out of the wheat fields and make them walk and talk and chatter and play ball with the look of eagles.” Apparently, saying, “Damn it, pay attention!” played some part in that.

I noted on yesterday’s radio show that the difference between being a patient hitter and an impatient one was often as thin as adding just a half a pitch to one's average number of pitches seen per plate appearance: not one pitch more per PA, but one every other PA. The nuances of the game are there to be picked up, small things that can make a bad player average and an average player good. If you’re, say, a roleplayer daydreaming on the bench for the Rockies and not watching how Troy Tulowitzki positions himself for the hitters, how are you going to know how to position yourself if you have to go in for him? McGraw didn’t want to lose a game for that reason. For all we know, today teams lose them on that basis all the time.

This brings us back to Starlin Castro, loitering about the middle infield as pitches are being delivered. Had Mike Quade been paying attention, he might have yanked the kid from the game right there, as we have seen other managers do in similar situations. He wasn’t, so he benched Castro for the game the day after. If we’ve learned anything about the Cubs in the last 24 hours, it’s that not only do they lack a galvanic manager, they are also sorely in need of the kind of player that the Dodgers got when they signed Kirk Gibson, or Don Baylor was for a series of teams in the 70s and 80s, someone who says, “Let’s stop fooling around and try to win something here.”

Castro is a fascinating talent, a .300 hitter in the major leagues at 21. Yet, the finer points of the game elude him, and yesterday’s meandering suggests it’s not just youth but immaturity. This is a player who could be the next Derek Jeter if he could just refine his game a little bit, could add some walks, deduct some errors, and, it apparently needs to be added, could find Jeter’s level of commitment, even in a meaningless late-August game—the same kind of contest in which Joe DiMaggio played hard simply because there might be someone in the crowd who had never seen him play before.

Even though the Cubs haven’t been over .500 for more than three seasons in a row since 1967-1972, they have to build a consistent winner one of these days. The resources are there to be exploited if the Ricketts family can choose competent leadership to replace Jim Hendry. When that glorious day dawns, Castro can be the centerpiece of the team that finally leads the Cubs out of the wilderness, or he can be the same player at 25 that he is now, a good-not-great player whom you might just think about trading if you value defense and attentiveness at short (perhaps two ways of saying the same thing) more than you do offense. Again, that’s not today but in the future. We’ve seen it happen before—who was Garry Templeton but the first Starlin Castro?

None of this is to say that Castro is irredeemable; rather, it is a plea to the Cubs. When Derek Jeter came up in the Yankees organization, he had the example of Don Mattingly. He had past World Series winners like Paul O’Neill, Jimmy Key, and David Cone, and the example of strong managers Buck Showalter and Joe Torre. The Cubs are a team of transients being managed by a transient. Mr. Ricketts, give this kid the support he needs to fully exploit his talent. Give this team at least one veteran leader on the field and in the dugout. Bring just a tiny taste of the old John McGraw into your organization. If the organization gets serious, Castro will, too—and if he doesn’t, at least you’ll have sorted out a coming star from one more failed Cubs experiment.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Starlin Castro,  The Who

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