Starlin Castro, whose eighth inning RBI double snapped a scoreless tie in the Cubs' 4-0 victory at Washington on Wednesday, is now hitting .315 and is five plate appearances shy of qualifying for the National League batting championship.
Castro would rank sixth in the NL batting race and sit 11 points behind leader Joey Votto of the Reds if he had qualified following Wednesday's action.
An NL rookie has never won a batting title. Tony Oliva who hit .323 for the 1964 Minnesota Twins and Ichiro Suzuki who hit .350 for Lou Piniella's 2001 Seattle Mariners are the only AL rookies to accomplish the feat
Castro - who has 33 extra-base hits (fifth among NL rookies) and 30 multi-hit games on the season, including three four-hit games in August - is certainly getting the job done with his bat. His defense, however, has been quite another story.
Castro has committed 20 errors in 96 games, which would translate to roughly 34 over a full 162-game season. His Ultimate Zone Rating also has determined his range to be lacking, he has exhibited poor fundamantals with his tagging technique at second base (remember the Juan Pierre slide?), and has compounded mistakes with mental lapses. In Saturday's game against Atlanta, Castro dropped a relay from the outfield when he took his eye off the ball and then loafed after the ball while an unearned run scored from third.
I don't think Castro's defense is cause for alarm. It is not unusual for a young shortstop to struggle with the glove, and many shortstops have overcome early struggles and had fine careers.
Four young Cubs shortstops in the second half of the 20th century developed into terrific defensive players after some early growing pains. To wit:
* Ernie Banks took over as the Cubs starting shortstop in 1954 and commited 34 errors in 154 games. He followed with error totals of 22 in 1955, 25 in 1956, and 32 in 1958. But Banks cut his error total to 12 (a then-NL record for shortstops) in 1959 when he won his second straight MVP Award. He also led NL shortstops in fielding percentage in 1960 - a Gold Glove season for Mr. Cub - and 1961.
* Don Kessinger committed 28 errorrs in 105 games as the Cubs' 22-year-old rookie shortstop in 1965 and 35 errors in 1966, but went on to become the NL's premier defensive shortstop for the next decade. Kessinger was selected to six All-Star teams, had over 500 assists in six consecutive seasons (1968-73), and won Gold Gloves in 1969 and 1970. Kessinger established a then-major league record with 54 consecutive errorless games at shortstop in 1969.
* Ivan DeJesus made 33 errors in 154 games in his first season as a full-time shortstop in 1977 but went on to hold down the job for the next four seasons. DeJesus, who possessed exceptional range, was well respected by teammates and opponents alike. He led NL shortstops in assists in 1977 and 1978, and cut his error total to 24 by 1980. He led NL shortstops in putouts in 1980.
* An erratic 22-year-old rookie Shawon Dunston committed 17 errors in 73 games at shortstop in 1985. He was an Opening Day starter, but struggled badly in all phases of his game before being sent back to the minors with a .194 batting avearge on May 11. Dunston was recalled on Aug. 13 and showed improvement. he went on to hold down the position for roughly the next decade. He committed just 17 errorrs in 138 games for the division champion Cubs in 1989. Dunston, who was the first pick in the 1982 major league draft, never fulfilled his potential but he was scrappy, hustling player who became a fan favorite and had perhaps the greatest arm ever possessed by a position player. Teammate Mark Grace has said that Dunston would have been an effective pitcher.
Playing shortstop well at the major league level is tough and a young, aggressive shortstop is bound to make mistakes. Cubs fans who are worried about Castro's defense need to show some patience.
"It's usually a learning process that takes years," Cubs interim manager Mike Quade said.
Even if Castro shows improvement at short, he may eventually be converted to second base if 19-year-old South Korean prospect Hak-Ju Lee continues to develop as expected. Lee, now playing at Class A Peoria, has a reputation as a spectacular fielder and possesses a rocket arm. But Lee has committed a whopping 59 errors in two minor-league seasons.
Also of note regarding Castro: Even if he wins the batting title, it may not be enough to win Rookie of the Year honors. San Francisco catcher Buster Posey is hitting .339 with 10 homers in 311 plate apperances and St. Louis left-hander Jaime Garcia is 11-6 with a 2.42 ERA in 24 starts.