After injuring his left hand in early August, Nick Castellanos missed a total of 46 games before returning to the Tigers. His absence was compounded by injuries to other key players like Jose Iglesias, Jordan Zimmermann, and Daniel Norris, but the removal of the third baseman from the lineup might have been the most severe. By the time Castellanos made it back into the offense, the Tigers were already in a struggling position. Though his disabled list stint was not the sole reason the Tigers missed the playoffs, his injury certainly played a significant role.
When Castellanos went out with his injury he was enjoying his best season to date. His .286 batting average, .331 on-base percentage, 18 home runs, and 119 wRC+ were all career highs by more than a few points, and they are likely to remain that way through the end of the year. He was slumping a bit in the second half, hitting just .222 with one homer and 76 wRC+, but that stretch constitutes less than 20 percent of his at bats on the season.
The Tigers were 61-49 at the time Castellanos went out, good for a .555 winning percentage. The averaged 4.81 runs per game on offense before his injury, and were two games behind Cleveland in the AL Central and a half-game ahead for the second AL Wild Card spot. During the 46 games without Castellanos, the Tigers went just 22-24, a .478 winning percentage. They fell to eight games behind Cleveland and two games out of a playoff position, scoring only 4.22 runs per game.
Multiple factors contributed to this lack of success, but the replacements at third base were definitely among them. Andrew Romine, Casey McGehee, JaCoby Jones, and Erick Aybar all saw time at the hot corner, but the quartet made very few positive impressions. Only Aybar managed a batting average above .240 while filling in for Castellanos, and his 97 wRC+ dwarfed those of the other third base options. The Tigers look wise for making the trade for him, but even his contribution was not enough to mitigate the void on the left side of the infield.
These four players made 191 plate appearances during the 46 games Castellanos missed, and the results were not pretty. They combined for just a .243 batting average and .292 OBP, and they totaled just seven doubles with no triples or homers. The quartet struck out 17 percent of the time and scored only 10 runs during this time span.
By combining their stats and using Fangraphs’ weighted on-base average (wOBA) formula, Romine, McGehee, Jones, and Aybar produced a .260 wOBA when filling in at third base during these 46 games. For context, the Atlanta third basemen have combined for the worst wOBA in MLB this season, sitting at .300. When looking at all third basemen with at least 50 plate appearances in 2016, only eight of 74 batters had a wOBA under .260. Essentially the Tigers third base replacements contributed very little value during this time frame.
The injury to Castellanos alone did not cause the Tigers to play under .500, but his absence clearly had a tangible impact on the team. Anytime a team loses a starting player a drop-off is expected, but the Tigers’ third base situation was exacerbated by the lack of suitable replacement options. At a time when things were already slipping away for the Tigers, losing an irreplaceable part of the lineup proved too daunting to overcome.