Technically, Nick Castellanos made his major league debut a year ago on September 1, but because we’re more concerned about his playing time since becoming an actual regular, that’s not terribly important. In 133 games and 520 plate appearances in 2014, there’s been plenty to like and plenty to give us pause and those extra 18 PA don’t move the needle at all.
Certainly, the bat was always going to carry Castellanos as he’s not a threat on the bases and his defense is absolutely not in the “game-changing” category in which you might find Jose Iglesias, for instance. But the bat was also supposed to be strong. His natural ability to hit and the potential for above average power was clear to about everyone who scouted him and logged an opinion. He wasn’t a “can’t miss” prospect, but the question was always “will he hit enough to cover for the other parts of his game?” not “is he really going to hit?”
Caveats of prospect evaluation noted and understood; everyone loved the bat. The glove was a question and the base running was a throwaway. What do we know now that we didn’t know a year ago about one of the potential franchise cornerstones?
We’ll start with the negatives because that will secretly trick you into thinking positives outweigh the negatives no matter what I actually say. His base running isn’t good, but we knew that. He’s stolen two bases and he’s been caught twice. That’s good for about -0.8 stole base runs and his other base running (like taking extra bases and not being thrown out) is good for another -2.2 runs.
That’s a -3.6, which isn’t a good mark, but we’re talking about a fraction of a win, maybe half of one, per season. He’s been thrown out on the bases seven times and he takes the extra base only 29% of the time (AL average is 40%). When he’s on first and the batter hits a single, he goes to third about one in five times. The average runner gets to third about ten percent more often.
It’s not part of his game, but we’re not talking about the worst runner in the game and we’re also dealing with a coaching staff that is somewhat responsible for the recklessness of the Tigers running game.
Defense is a less comfortable dive. In more than 1,100 innings at third this year, he’s been worth -29 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and has a -15.5 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). If you aren’t familiar with those numbers, it says he’s been between 15 and 30 runs worse than average at third base. Which, if accurate, is horrible.
If you look at Revised Zone Rating (RZR), which is simply a measure of balls in his zone turned into outs, he has a very poor .604 mark. Heck, a .950 fielding percentage isn’t great if you want to look at a hardly useful measure as well. He’s even converted a slightly below average number of bunts into outs.
By no measure has Castellanos been good at third this year. In particular, much of his negative rating comes from the fact that he’s failed to convert a large (relatively speaking) number of routine plays. Inside Edge reports that he’s botched 12 routine plays in 222 routine chances, which might not seem like a lot but giving away that many easy outs is a pretty fast way to torpedo your ratings and your team’s chances of victory.
But all is not lost on defense. For one, he spent the prior year and a half playing outfield before being thrown back into the fire at third to start this season after having not played there since 2012. While he hasn’t played well, we can chalk some of that up to an adjustment period. Additionally, the fact that he’s failed to make routine plays is actually a good thing for his long term outlook. You can fix the way you respond to easy plays much more easily than you can add an extra step of range.
He is never going to flash excellent range, but he doesn’t need to. He just needs to be a passable defender and that goal is still within reach. He has a solid arm, but at times he’s looked awkward moving to balls hit close to him. With proper coaching, he should be able to fix the simple issues given his work ethic. He can’t undo the negatives from this year, but they aren’t as concerning as they might be otherwise. If he can be a -5 defender instead of a -20, he should be able to stick at third. I’m optimistic that he can make that happen for at least a couple of years.
Let’s turn now to the meal ticket; his bat. If you look at the raw statistics, you aren’t going to see excellent performance. In 520 PA he has a 96 wRC+, which means on a per PA basis, he’s been slightly worse than the average hitter after adjusting for park effects. Take his raw wOBA (.312) and compare it to what the major projection systems expected during the preseason and he’s coming up just a bit short of the .321 estimate.
So he’s doing a little worse than we thought he might, but it’s close enough that we shouldn’t split hairs. Young hitters with his skills don’t typically burst onto the scene and dominate the league and he’s been no different.
Primarily, his problem comes down to making contact. He’s connecting with 72% of swings while league average is more like 79%. When he connects, things are good. He has a nice BABIP and a lot of it is probably real given the number of line drives and his ability to hit doubles and the occasional home run fits in well with what we think he can do.
And visually his swing is very pleasing to the eyes. He needs to work on controlling the strike zone and laying off the pitches he can’t hit, but he looks like he’s on track to grow into his projection just fine, considering that discipline typically improves with time.
Looking back, the overall picture has been driven down by his poor defense. FanGraphs has him at -0.3 WAR, but if you regress the defense to closer to -5 runs you’re looking at a guy who might finish around 1.0 WAR. And that’s in his rookie season before his bat really develops. He hasn’t been good overall this year, but I think we’ve also seen enough to feel good about his growth going forward.
I think a .350 wOBA is a very reasonable target. If he can do that and play -5 defense at third base, he can be a 3-4 win player in his prime.
I would caution you against the notion that Castellanos has been steady at third base. He hasn’t. Don’t confuse his ability with his performance. But for the future, the ability is very important. This hasn’t been a breakout rookie year, but it has been a good chance to see what he can do against MLB competition and there is plenty to like.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44