Expectations have always been high for Nick Castellanos. He was selected out of high school by the Detroit Tigers with the 44th overall pick in the 2010 draft. As the team forfeited those first round picks in the following few years, Castellanos became the "golden boy" of the organization as their lone top prospect.
Those expectations can turn poisonous when a young player so highly touted struggles early in his career. And Nick did struggle mightily, both at the plate and in the field, while voices calling for him to be demoted or even traded for spare parts grew louder.
However, just as the naysayers grew loudest, Castellanos decided he'd heard about enough advice and simply needed to clear his mind at the plate. He streamlined his mental approach during a brief rest break in late June, and from that point on, has gone on a furious two-month tear. The question now is whether this is just an extended hot streak, or a real breakout.
Perhaps, while the Tigers' season crashed and burned, some of Castellanos' numbers flew under the radar. If you missed it, he did some serious damage in July and August. An OPS of .822 in July led to a monster month of August where he hit .286/.340/.560. He cracked six doubles, three triples and five home runs for the month, posting an excellent wRC+ of 144. The power hitter the organization hoped Castellanos would develop into was fully on display.
The first thing that stands out in Castellanos' performance over the past two months is the fact that he brought his walk rate over eight percent, just above a league average clip. In May and June his walk rates were 5.1 and 5.2 percent respectively. This improvement in plate discipline is, to me, the biggest sign that the young third baseman may be making sustainable progress as a hitter. Typically, 60 plate appearances are enough to attribute a change in walk rate like that to the player, rather than to statistical noise. That Castellanos has managed to sustain it over 204 plate appearances bodes well for the future. It also ties directly into his whopping power numbers, as he was clearly much more successful in selecting pitches to swing at, and at recognizing when to cut loose.
Castellanos has finally started laying off of breaking balls, and not long after, showed a similar, sharp decline in whiffs against offspeed pitches. The challenge for most young hitters is to adapt to major-league quality secondary pitches. Many, like Castellanos, take time to begin recognizing sliders, curveballs and change-ups at the highest level. And many wash out of the majors because they are never able to make those adjustments.
Whether it's an improved comfort level at the plate, or simply a growing familiarity with pitchers in the league, Castellanos looks to have made a leap in that regard. Since that point, he's walking more, and that discipline is allowing him to find fastballs to crush. Not coincidentally, his average exit velocity on batted balls showed some serious spikes in line with all these other improvements.
The fly in the ointment for some may be Castellanos' ongoing tendency to strike out too much. However, we've seen plenty of power hitters, including our very own J.D. Martinez, succeed quite nicely with a strikeout rate that hovers near 25 percent. To Castellanos' credit, he hasn't hit a single pop-up in three months. Outside of the strikeouts, even his outs are potentially productive. He has also done nice work with runners in scoring position this season, posting an .862 OPS and .188 ISO for the year in those situations, and substantially higher as of late.
There is a lot to like here. While no two-month stretch is enough to guarantee that Castellanos has arrived, he has certainly shown serious signs of it for two consecutive months, and his peripherals back up this offensive outburst nicely. One of the key things to look for over the final games of the 2015 season is whether he can sustain this high quality production into the offseason. With the dark cloud of Victor Martinez's health hanging over the 2016 lineup, having another productive bat to lean on is huge for the team's off-season planning. While Castellanos' glove remains something of a work in progress, his bat is well on its way to making him a very valuable part of the Tigers' future.