There’s a lot manager Don Mattingly appreciates about having Starlin Castro in the Miami Marlins’ lineup every day.
First of all, he plays every day, which is more of a rarity than ever in modern MLB. He also has a reputation as a hitter, which gives Mattingly confidence the second baseman could shrug off the rocky stretches and put together an ultimately satisfying season, or at least something close to one.
These expectations are finally playing out in the second half of the season. Castro, whose batting average was down to .229 at the end of May, has been one of the hottest hitters in the majors throughout July — just in time for the Marlins to potentially get something of value back ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.
“He’s been good lately. I think it’s part of the ups and downs,” Mattingly said Wednesday after Castro broke up Chris Paddack’s no-hitter with a solo home run to lead off the eighth inning. “You always talk about, water reaches its level. A guy like Starlin, he’s got a pretty good track record of being able to hit and he gets up in a certain area, and I think we’re heading right back to that area again, so hopefully he continues to swing it.”
The homer to end the rookie’s bid at the San Diego Padres’ first no-hitter came after Paddack struck out Castro twice before the infielder extended his hitting streak to 11 games. Castro finished Wednesday 2 for 4, bringing his batting average during the hitting streak, which began in the first game of July, up to .426. Now sitting at .255 for the season, Castro has turned around a disastrous start to 2019.
Castro arrived in Miami ahead of the 2018 season, one of the most high-profile pieces the Marlins got back when they traded Giancarlo Stanton to the New York Yankees. Castro was coming off his fourth All-Star season, and his time in South Florida inevitably seemed limited. He put together a strong 2018, although Miami (35-58) opted to hang on to the veteran to solidify second base. The club has an option for Castro at the end of the season with a $1 million buyout, so a midseason trade to a contender seemed logical in the final year of Castro’s deal.
For more than three months, the 29-year-old made such a trade difficult. Even by the end of June when his turnaround had already begun, Castro ranked last among qualifying hitters in wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs. The .229 batting average at the end of May had only ticked up to .231 by the end of June, although he hit seven doubles and two home runs in the month, bringing his slugging percentage up from .294 to .313.
Now his slugging percentage has climbed all the way to .359 and his WAR has climbed nearly a full win in fewer than two weeks of games. Six of Castro’s 20 hits in July, entering a 12:10 p.m. game against the Padres (46-49) on Wednesday, have gone for extra bases. Since the start of June, Castro is batting .289, and ranks fourth among National League second baseman in hits and RBI.
“I think I have a little bit of the same approach. The only thing difference is the ball drops now,” Castro said. “I just keep my mind positive. It’s a long season. It’s not how we start, it’s how we finish, and I always have this in my mind, keep preparing every day, come in here every day, try to do your job. It’s a long season.”
Although his exit velocity and hard-hit percentage haven’t appreciably changed in July, Castro is hitting the ball in the air more consistently than he was during the darkest days of his season in April and May. Midway through May, Castro’s groundball rate was about 8 percent higher than his career average. Now his groundball rate is down to 52.3 percent — just about in line with his career average — while his line-drive rate is nearing his career average of 23.9 percent at 21.3.
Mattingly said Castro, who has played every game this season, has played through some nagging injuries, but the bigger change has just been the sort of minor adjustments the manager expects from a player with 1,540 career hits.
“You are always making adjustments,” Mattingly said. “It probably means more about not that he’s trying to hit the ball on the ground, but it means he’s pulling off a little bit in there early and he’s getting around balls, so really it’s more the adjustments and staying consistent with what you’re trying to do, then all of a sudden you’re hitting line drives.”
The Marlins have fielded calls about Castro’s availability, and a trade could prove to be mutually beneficial. Castro has played in the postseason twice and could help a contender with issues in the middle of the infield. Miami will almost certainly choose not to exercise Castro’s $16 million club option at the end of the season, so it would like to get something of value back for the final months of the right-handed hitter’s deal.
If and when a trade happens, the Marlins can also further expedite their youth movement. Isan Diaz, the organization’s No. 6 prospect in the MLB.com rankings, has been a star for Triple A New Orleans with a .305 batting average, a .971 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 22 home runs, and he has transitioned from shortstop to second base full-time the past two seasons. His major-league shot might not be far off, depending how the rest of July plays out.