WezBlog: Castellanos Not Off to Bad Start

With the Tigers among the best teams in baseball, there hasn’t been much to gripe about. But one player that has felt the ire of fans has been Nick Castellanos – continued complaints about his poor defense, and claims that he won’t hit have popped up in this young season. Despite the critics, Castellanos hasn’t been that bad at the plate, his defense has improved, and oh, he still just turned 23.

When the Tigers anointed Nick Castellanos as their everyday third baseman last spring, the Tigers were giving their star prospect an everyday job, taking advantage of the opportunity to fill a starting spot on the big league club with a player making the league minimum. It’s become a part of the Tigers strategy to balance their star-studded roster with young, cheap talent. To pay Miguel Cabrera $30 million per season, when you can’t spend $300 million on payroll, you have to balance that someplace, and a guy like Castellanos gives them that chance.

Perhaps that created unrealistic expectations for fans. A prospect that was highly regarded coming up was given a job, and Tigers fans thought they were getting a future All-Star. And perhaps they still will. But Castellanos is not Mike Trout, and was not going to produce like that. Remember, at 23, Castellanos is younger than most big leaguers, and even younger than a lot of star prospects generating hype. Kris Bryant, the Cubs star prospect who just recently made his big league debut, is actually a couple months older than Castellanos. And Nick has been in the big leagues for the last 18 months.

His first season went about as expected, given the circumstances. A 22-year old with only about 1,700 minor league plate appearances, he showed he had natural hitting ability, but was still learning the finer points of hitting talented pitchers. They found ways to exploit him, and he’s still learning how to adjust.

Defensively of course, things weren’t as encouraging. He was thrust back to third base where he hadn’t played since the summer of 2012, and isn’t a naturally gifted athlete that could quickly adjust. The results were quite poor. Any onlooker could tell he wasn’t making all of the plays he could, or should, and advanced metrics estimated that his defense cost the Tigers about 30 runs in 2014.

Entering his sophomore campaign, of course the Tigers wanted to see growth everywhere, but the principal objective was to shore up his defense. 30 runs is the equivalent of about three wins, and the Tigers (or any team, really) can’t afford to give away three games on poor defense from one position.

And thus far, Castellanos has done that. To be clear, he’s not a great defender, and he’s probably never going to be a great defender. The same physical limitations that were in his scouting report coming up are still there.

But Castellanos has more or less been average defensively. The same metric, Defensive Runs Saved, that said Castellanos’s defense cost the Tigers 30 runs in 2014 shows him being worth about three runs so far at the hot corner. Last year, his zone rating indicated he made plays on balls on his zone less than 60% of the time – this year, it’s nearly 75%.

Using Inside Edge’s fielding statistics, where scouts grade the difficulty of making a play, he’s made strides in two areas. The first is that for plays ranging from unlikely to impossible, Castellanos has already made as many plays (3 out of 11 chances) in less than a quarter of the season than he did all of last season (3 out of 80 chances). The second is that he’s doing a better job at converting the routine plays – last year on routine plays, he converted a little under 95% of the time. Now, he’s at nearly 99%.

Suffice it to say, Castellanos has shored up his defense. He’s not great, but he’s also eased concerns about his ability to stay at third base. But to dedicate the sort of time and effort that requires focusing an inordinate amount of time on his defense, and when there’s only so much time in a day, that means spending less on his offense. That has meant that Castellanos hasn’t made strides in his offensive game, at least not the sort fans were hoping for.

It’s been a mixed bag for Nick offensively. He’s improved his walk rate (up to 7.7% from 6.2% last year), and is hitting for a bit more power (.146 isolated slugging, compared to .137 in 2014), but is striking out at a higher rate (28% compared to 24% last season). His wOBA is down from .307 last year to .300 this year, mostly due to that ~10 point decline in his batting average, which is directly related to the higher strikeout rate. That’s something that is problematic, but can be corrected.

All of this comes together to create a player that has actually been worth about half a win so far this season (0.4 fWAR, 0.5 bWAR). That’s a pretty drastic difference compared to last year, when he got everyday playing time, but with porous defense was valued as negative on the Tigers win totals by both WAR calculations.

Fans frustrations around Castellanos have centered around the lack of improvement from his offense. But at 23, he’s still growing as a player, especially offensively. And with his improved defense, he’s become much more valuable to the Tigers this year than he was a year ago. If he continues at this rate, he’ll end up being roughly a two win player.

That’s still not an All-Star, but it’s also not a player that Tigers fans should be up in arms about, either.

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