Starlin Castro got the night off Tuesday in Milwaukee, marking the first Chicago Cubs game of the post-Jim Hendry era in which Castro was not the starting shortstop. His streak of consecutive games without a break stopped at 269—a far cry from the iron-man streaks authored by players of the 1960s and 1970s and scarcely a tenth of the way to Cal Ripken’s record, set mostly as a shortstop, but in this day and age, a remarkable stretch.
Of course, he took his seat not because he wanted to, and not because of injury, but because the last two months of Starlin Castro’s career have been the longest and worst stretch of futility of his entire life. A man who never saw Low Class A or Triple-A baseball, and whose seasonal batting average never sank below .260 at any point in his first three seasons, has hovered in the .230s for the last three weeks, drawing no walks, hitting for no power, and seeing the defensive progress he made throughout 2011 and 2012 erode.
Before relenting and benching Castro, manager Dale Sveum tried moving him all over the batting order. Castro batted first, second, third, fifth and seventh over the course of the last month, but eventually, it became clear that no psychological trick could shake him from his malaise, and that no matter where he batted, he was hurting the team by taking the field.
We’ll see whether a single game off can recharge Castro’s batteries. It seems unlikely. His problems are multifactorial, involving issues of adjustment, approach and (most of all, for my money) swing mechanics. It’s going to be a tough climb back to the plateau he once attained, and the brief reprieve doesn’t seem like a magic balm.
On the other hand, it’s my firm position that position players should get more days off than they do. In fact, for a handful of games each season, teams should be able to list a player as inactive for the day, and he should stay home. This should be common sense.
An MLB season lasts 180 days, give or take a few. This season, most teams opened on April 1 and will finish on September 29, which comes out to 182 days. Included in that is the four-day All-Star break, which is now four days for everyone, not three for some and four for others. The net effect is that teams get about one day off in every 10, for six months. If a guy plays every game all year, he’s absolutely bound to wear down and struggle to bring consistent focus and energy to the park daily. It won’t necessarily be linear, although a study by someone on the SABR analytics committee several years ago demonstrated that players who took fewer than five games off in a season had worse Septembers than would be expected. But it’ll always show up.
This isn’t an argument that players are overworked and deserve more of a break. I understand how untenable that position would be. Players get four months off each year and make millions of dollars. I think the market determines their salary, and am weary of the facile argument that they are overpaid, but I can appreciate that virtually no working conditions—and certainly not the ones most players encounter today, with roomy clubhouses, first-class airfare and hotel accommodations, and on and on—would elicit much sympathy for the plight of the pro ballplayers.
What this is, though, is a case for about 30 games off per position player per season. The workload of a strong everyday catcher is about the right workload for most position players. The goal should be to get guys about 50 total days off over the course of the season. This requires a bench of a higher quality than most teams carry anymore, but it shouldn’t be impossible to field a player or two each day who represents an acceptable step down from the regular guy and gives said regular a much-needed opportunity to rest and prepare for future contests. I think the improved performance of all players involved (including the super-subs, who would have a more rhythmic routine and could see live pitching more often) would more than offset the lost time for the best players on the diamond, in most cases.
Radical though it may be, now that amphetamines and PEDs are risks not remotely worth taking, this shift in approach appears necessary to me, in order to keep guys like Castro fresher and more able to implement changes and adjustments without which they simply can’t play at their peak talent level.Next post: The Angels’ Unusual Offense
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