Castillo and Lake: The Computers vs. Hope

In February, we posed ten questions to ponder as spring training unfolded. One of these questions was whether Welington Castillo and Junior Lake could maintain their unusually high batting averages on balls hit in play (“BABIP”) or would their good fortune run out and cause their batting averages to plummet in 2014.

The optimists among us look at Castillo’s 2013 season and see respectable offensive numbers and improved defense.  Likewise, Lake’s mid-season call-up provided a spark to an otherwise moribund offensive.  Can these young players build on their 2013 success and become core pieces in the Cubs’ rebuilding effort?  If not, what type of role will they play in the years to come?

Welington Castillo:

In 2013, Welington Castillo played in 113 games with 428 plate appearances during which he posted a .274 batting average (“BA”), .349 on base percentage (“OBP”), .397 slugging percentage (“SLG”), and .746 (“OPS”). Castillo accumulated 4.4 Wins Above Replacement (“WAR”) in the process – good for sixth place among all major league catchers. One possible cause for concern in Castillo’s solid 2013 season was his .347 BABIP. In other words, when Castillo was not drawing walks, striking out, or hitting homeruns, he hit .347. To put Castillo’s season in perspective, the BABIP for an average major league hitter is .290 to .310. Given the significant degree of flux many players experience in their yearly BABIP, Castillo runs a high risk of BABIP regression in 2014.

Castillo’s high 2013 BABIP has led to pessimistic predictions for 2014. Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS projection system, forecasts a fairly subdued 2014 slash line of .248/.323/.393/.715 for Castillo. According to ZiPS, Castillo will achieve a 2.0 WAR. Steamer projects a slightly more favorable outcome for Castillo (.252/.324/.407/.731 with a 2.1 WAR), but nothing close to his 2013 breakout season. The common denominator in these two projections centers on their predicted decrease in Castillo’s BABIP. The ZiPS BABIP of .310 and Steamer BABIP of .303 both reflect a significant departure from Castillo’s 2013 performance. If luck plays a significant role in a player’s BABIP, then the ZiPS and Steamer projections suggest that Castillo should invest in a rabbit’s foot.

Castillo’s 2013 second-half walk rate might be the saving grace that off-sets a natural decline in his BABIP. After drawing only 13 walks in his first 263 plate appearances, Castillo walked 21 times in his last 165. In order to replicate last seasons’ statistics, Castillo either will need to draw walks at his second half rate or duplicate his extraordinary BABIP. Clearly, the ZiPS and Steamer statistical projections do not expect Castillo to do either.  Castillo’s 2014 success will depend on his ability to prove the computers wrong.

Welington Castillo Projections

  BA OBP SLG OPS WAR
2013 season .274 .349 .397 .746 4.4
2014 ZiPS .248 .323 .393 .715 2.0
2014 Steamer .252 .324 .407 .731 2.1
2014 PECOTA .249 .322 .410 .732 1.9

 
 

Junior Lake:

At the age of 23, Junior Lake began his big league career with a bang. After a hot start, Lake ended the 2013 season with respectable statistics. Unlike Castillo, Lake’s speed suggests the ability to maintain a higher BABIP than most players.  Odds are low, however, that Lake will repeat his excellent .377 BABIP from 2013. Last season, Lake held the potential dubious distinction (depending on your perspective) of making the all BABIP team. In fact, while ZiPS and Steamer project that Lake will maintain an above average BABIP in 2014 (.338 and .318, respectively), both calculations indicate a sharp decline form 2013. If Lake loses 40 or more points in BABIP this year, it appears unlikely that he will come close to matching his 2013 success.

Assume for the sake of argument that Lake maintains a BABIP consistent with the computer projections. Lake’s meager walk rate (24 walks in 494 plate appearances in 2013) threatens to drive down his OBP to an unacceptably low level.  In order to ameliorate a likely decline in his BABIP, Lake will need to increase his OBP by drawing more walks. For a player with Lake’s speed, getting on base plays a crucial role in becoming a viable offensive threat. Until Lake can increase his extremely low 5.1% walk rate, he will struggle to reach base enough to hold down a starting spot in the outfield.

The Cubs’ current organizational philosophy emphasizes OBP. For players such as Castillo and Lake, 2013 proved to be a successful season due in large part to their unusually high BABIP. Baring similar BABIP luck in 2014, Castillo and Lake will need to reach base by drawing more walks (an Achilles heel for both players) in order to sustain competitive OBPs. Although power surges could help to inflate either player’s OPS, and compensate for a lower OBP in the process, neither ZiPS nor Steamer suggest a significant power increase for Castillo or Lake in 2014. As with several other young Cubs’ players, 2014 will provide Castillo and Lake with an opportunity to refine their offensive skill sets.  With the emphasis that team management places on reaching base, both players can take a step forward in 2014 by drawing more walks.

 Junior Lake Projections

  BA OBP SLG OPS WAR
2013 season .284 .332 .428 .760 0.8
2014 ZiPS .252 .295 .380 .674 0.2
2014 Steamer .258 .306 .390 .696 0.6
2014 PECOTA .247 .288 .376 .664 0.6

 
 
Inner photo embedded: _DSCN0002 Junior Lake / guano / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped

Outer photo: cmd.exe / *n3wjack’s world in pixels / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped and darkened

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