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Starlin Castro stays humble: “Nobody’s better than baseball”

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Starlin Castro stands at his locker and takes the heat when things go wrong. He never asks for days off. He won’t let the money or the trade rumors change him.

Castro speaks better English than he did as a rookie, and a $60 million contract has given his family generational wealth. But after all the ups and downs, he still resembles the kid who showed up in the visiting clubhouse at Great American Ball Park on May 7, 2010, and faced the great expectations.

Castro hit a three-run bomb in his first big-league at-bat and put up six RBIs that night in Cincinnati. Three nights later, the young shortstop made three errors and got booed during his Wrigley Field debut.

There have been extremes, getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated, getting ripped by Bobby Valentine on national television and now getting back to the All-Star Game for a third time at age 24.

Castro will sometimes slam his helmet to the ground in frustration or let his mind drift for a moment while playing defense. But he’s remarkably composed for someone who plays a glamour position for an iconic franchise in an overheated media market.

It’s just that Castro’s now a more complete player, already putting up 11 homers and 52 RBIs this season, better numbers than he had all last year.

[MORE CUBS: After Cubs/A’s deal, Samardzija will be in All-Star limbo]

Alfonso Soriano — the $136 million man who became the godfather to Castro’s son, Starlin Jr. — showed how to keep a cool head and bring the right amount of swagger to the ballpark.

“You know who I learned a lot from — Sori,” Castro said. “Sori’s the same guy. Always. I always hung out with him. And that’s the kind of thing that he told me: Nobody’s better than baseball. When you’re gone, baseball stays. If you’re a star, if you’re a great player, keep the same (attitude). Stay humble.”

Castro spoke with Soriano after the New York Yankees designated him for assignment last week, and it’s unclear if he’ll simply stay home with his family in Tampa, Fla., and retire after a borderline Hall of Fame career.

“Maybe,” Castro said. “I don’t know. Let’s see. I don’t talk to him about that. But he’s good.”

Like Soriano, Castro always wants to see his name in the lineup, and that gets overlooked when he’s broken down on Twitter and talk radio.

Castro has started all 94 games at shortstop this season. He played 161 last season, even as he struggled to process the organization’s mixed messages, looking lost at the plate (.245 average). He played all 162 in 2012, part of a consecutive-games streak that reached 269. That says more than the coded language used by some scouts and media personalities.

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant gets national spotlight in Futures Game]

Castro credited Tim Buss, the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator, for traveling to the Dominican Republic during the offseason and designing a program that reshaped his body and his mentality. Castro then worked out at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., before reporting to spring training.

Castro had something to prove after the Cubs fired manager Dale Sveum, citing the stalled development by young core players like their franchise shortstop and first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Whatever the perceptions, new manager Rick Renteria put it this way: “I just know from the very first phone call we shared over the winter, (Castro) said he was willing to do whatever it took to get back on track. And he’s done it.”

Castro has survived the regime changes, playing for Lou Piniella and Mike Quade and working with a diverse group of hitting coaches and infield instructors, as well as Theo Epstein’s front office. The consensus: Castro is coachable, eager to please, someone who cares about his craft.

“I don’t know what the media have said about him,” Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller said. “I came in clean with Rizz and Casty. But from Day 1, both those guys have been hard workers, and they take it very seriously. And that’s all you can ask. They’ve been listening. They apply what you’re saying, and they’ve been going out and doing (it).”

Castro appreciates it more this time. He chartered a plane to fly his family and Rizzo to Minnesota. He will be back where he belongs on Tuesday night at Target Field.

“After that bad year last year, that’s what we’re looking for,” Castro said. “Make the All-Star Game and come back at that level.”

The New Zealand World Baseball Classic team performs the Haka

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It’s World Baseball Classic time again. Just the qualifying rounds. The actual tournament happens in 2017. Qualifiers will happen in Sydney, Australia, Mexicali, Mexico, Panama City, Panama and Brooklyn, N.Y., periodically, between now and September.

The Sydney round just got underway yesterday, so yes, some actual baseball is going on. As I’ve written and ranted before, the WBC is not my favorite thing that happens in baseball and certainly not the most important thing, but it’s pretty fun. Especially when there are displays of enthusiasm and pageantry and the like.

Such as the Haka, which basically every New Zealand sports team does and which never gets old:

 

Down in Sydney, the Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and South Africa teams are competing in a six-game, modified double-elimination format. In the other three qualifying rounds, Mexico, Czech Republic, Germany, Nicaragua, Colombia, France, Panama, Spain, Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan will compete. Each qualifying round puts one representative in the WBC.

Those four qualifiers will compete in the WBC itself against countries that performed well enough in the past that they need not submit to qualifying: Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela.

Someone make sure Jon Morosi is well-hyrdrated. It’s gonna be a long year.

Yovani Gallardo and the Orioles are both “optimistic” about a deal

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Multiple reports Wednesday had the Orioles and free agent right-hander Yovani Gallardo deep in negotiations on a multi-year deal. Nothing has been finalized yet, but Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com says “both sides appear to be pretty optimistic still.”

Ghiroli adds that the “ball is in the Orioles’ court,” although that may simply reveal her likely source to be Gallardo’s agent. Whatever the case, Baltimore is apparently now willing to forfeit their first-round draft pick to sign Galllardo and he may lead to a domino effect in which they also forfeit a second-round draft pick to sign outfielder Dexter Fowler.

The idea being that if you’re going to cough up the 14th overall pick to sign a mid-level free agent with spring training right around the corner you might as well cough up a lower draft pick to sign a second one. Gallardo has shown signs of decline, including a big dip in strikeout rate, but he logged 184 innings with a 3.42 ERA for the Rangers last season.

Chipper Jones says the Mets are his pick to “go all the way”

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Chipper Jones may believe some weird things but he’s pretty savvy and clear-eyed when it comes to analyzing baseball.

Remember back in 2013 how he picked the Dodgers to beat the Braves in the NLDS? And how, because of his perceived “disloyalty,” Braves players had an immature little temper tantrum and refused to catch his ceremonial first pitch? Yeah, that was a great look. If I was more inclined to the hokey and irrational, I’d say that created “The Curse of Chipper” and that it condemned the Braves to two straight years of sucking. Hey, people have built careers on curses sillier than that.

Anyway, kudos to Chipper for apparently not giving a crap about that sort of thing and, instead, saying what he thinks about baseball. Stuff like how he thinks the Mets are going to win it all, saying “They’re really setting the bar and they’re my early-season pick to probably go all the way.”

Keeping in mind that anything can happen in baseball, it’s as good a pick as any other I reckon. Even if it means he has to say that the team who was his greatest rival during his playing career — and whom he thoroughly owned during that time — is better than the one that pays his salary now. Or any other one.

Did Tony La Russa screw Jim Edmonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy?

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Yes, that’s a somewhat provocative question. But it’s still an interesting question, the relevancy of and merits of which we’ll get to in a second. I pose it mostly so I can tell you about some neat research a friend of mine is doing and which should make Hall of Fame discussions and the general discussion of baseball history a lot of fun in the coming years. Bear with me for a moment.

There has long been a war between metrics and narrative. The folks who say that so-and-so was great because of the arc of his story and his career and those who say so-and-so was not so great or whatshisface was way, way better because of the numbers. Those views are often pitted as irreconcilable opposites. But what if they weren’t? What if there was some data which explained why some players become narrative darlings and others don’t? Some explanation for why, say, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Dwight Evans isn’t despite having better numbers? An explanation, that isn’t about voters being dumb or merely playing favorites all willy-nilly? What if there was some actual quantitative reason why favorites get played in the first place?

That’s the thesis of the work of Brandon Isleib. He has just finished writing a very interesting book. It’s not yet published, but I have had the chance to read it. It sets forth the fascinating proposition that we can quantify narrative. That we can divine actual numerical values which help explain a player’s fame and public profile. Values which aren’t based on some complicated or counterintuitive formula, but which are rooted in the very thing all baseball fans see every day: games. Wins and losses. The daily standings. Values which reveal that, no, Hall of Fame voters who made odd choices in the view of the analytics crowd weren’t necessarily stupid or petty. They were merely reacting to forces and dynamics in the game which pushed them in certain ways and not others.

“But wait!” you interject. “Jim Rice and Dwight Evans played on the same dang team! How does Brandon distinguish that?” I won’t give away all the details of it but it makes sense if you break down how the Red Sox did in certain years and how that corresponded with Rice’s and Evans’ best years. There were competitive narratives in play in 1975, 1978 or 1986 that weren’t in play in 1981 or 1987. From those competitive narratives come player narratives which are pretty understandable. When you weight it all based on how competitive a team was on a day-to-day basis based on how far out of first place they were, etc., a picture starts to come together which explains why “fame” works the way it does.

From this, you start to realize why certain players, no matter how good, never got much Hall of Fame consideration. And why others’ consideration seemed disproportionate compared to their actual performance. All of which, again, is based on numbers, not on the sort of bomb-throwing media criticism in which jerks like me have come to engage.

Like I said, the book won’t be out for a bit — Brandon just finished it — but in the meantime he has a website where he has been and, increasingly will be, talking about his quantification of narrative stuff, writing short articles posing some of the questions his book and his research addresses.

Today’s entry — which is what my headline is based on — isn’t really numbers-based. It’s more talking about the broader phenomenon Brandon’s work gets at in terms of trying to figure out which players are credited for their performance and which are not so credited and why. Specifically, it talks about how Tony La Russa, more than most managers, gets the credit for his success and his players probably get somewhat less than they deserve. In this way La Russa is kind of viewed as a football coach figure and his players are, I dunno, system quarterbacks. It’s something that is unfair, I think, to guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and will, eventually, likely be unfair to players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday.

It’s fascinating stuff which gets to the heart of player reputation and how history comes together. It reminds us that, in the end, the reporters and the analysts who argue about all of these things are secondary players, even if we make the most noise. It’s the figures in the game — the players and the managers — who shape it all. The rest of us are just observers and scribes.