In 2014, Detroit Tigers fans got their first look at a rare sight: a well-regarded young prospect whose calling card was a bat. While Nick Castellanos' play at third base was unnerving, he held his own at the plate as a rookie. Unfortunately, another year into his major league career, he has yet to do any more than that. Castellanos' work at the plate in 2016 will likely determine whether Tigers general manager Al Avila has a long-term answer at third base.
We know some things about Castellanos as a hitter at this point. He strikes out too much and walks too little, but both of those issues would be footnotes if he could unlock his power potential. If you hit enough home runs, some walks will usually find you. He has struggled with breaking balls and changeups both low and away. He's a spray hitter who generally gets his money's worth when he makes contact, but also gets caught out on his front foot too often. And he's still just 24 years old.
So how do we determine if he's getting any better?
Power is going to be the measure of Castellanos' season. Home runs and doubles makes up for a lot of ills, and he's shown plenty of potential to do more damage at the plate. Hitters like J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton strike out just as often, but their ability to hit the ball over the walls makes it a minor concern.
Part of Castellanos' relative weakness in the power department is hidden within an apparent strength. While line drives can produce more hits than fly balls do, they aren't going out of the park, and, unless scorched, aren't as likely to find their way to the wall as a hard hit fly ball is. A decent percentage of Castellanos' line drives are balls that caught him off balance that he squared up on with his hands for a single. That's a good trait to have, but to really drive pitches consistently, he has to find more pitches he can stay back on.
Castellanos took a step in the right direction in this regard last season, upping his fly ball percentage to just over 40 percent, an increase of almost four percent over 2014. In the process, his home run rate per fly ball saw a small increase. If he can continue to add a little more launch angle to his hard hit balls in 2016, the power will likely increase along with it. At his age and with two major league seasons under his belt, it's reasonable to expect that Castellanos should be a little stronger physically this season.
Like many young hitters, Castellanos' plate discipline is the biggest thing holding him back. He has shown a marked tendency to swing and miss at balls below the strike zone early in his career. To curb that tendency, Castellanos needs to become a more patient hitter. As a naturally aggressive hitter, it's unrealistic to expect him to suddenly start drawing a lot of walks. However, selecting better pitches to swing at could go a long way toward boosting his power numbers.
Castellanos' struggles in this area have produced huge troughs in his production in parts of his young career. The ceiling is nice, but the floor is still too low. The main reason for optimism this year comes from the improvement he made in his pitch selection during the second half of 2015.
Castellanos did a much better job laying off breaking balls and off-speed pitches during the second half of 2015. His ability to sustain this improvement will determine how he produces at the plate in 2016, especially as opposing pitchers adapt to his aggressive, first-pitch swinging tendencies. The key? Recognizing and hunting fastballs, which he slugged .522 against last season. If he is able to carry that approach into 2016, Castellanos should be able to moderate the cold stretches and hit for the kind of power we saw down the stretch last year.
So far, his career has been an all-or-nothing affair with only a few months of success scattered throughout. The brutal offensive numbers he ran in May and June of 2015 can't be allowed to drag on the Tigers' offense should they reoccur. Castellanos still doesn't have enough of a glove to justify it.
Judge Castellanos when he's cold
In the early going this season, Castellanos has been hammering opposing pitchers on first-pitch fastballs. We've seen several big days from him and plenty of power. It won't last forever, though. Opponents will adjust. Everyone's bat goes cold to one degree or another throughout a season. His inability to make quick counter-adjustments to the league thus far make it tricky to predict what his overall numbers will look like by season's end.
Because at some point, pitchers are going to stop throwing him first pitch fastballs. If he's going to be able to remain stubborn, hunting the best pitches for him to hit, he's got to improve his approach when he's down in counts. Thus far in his career, Castellanos has been a disaster with two strikes on him. Down 0-1, he has a career wRC+ of just 59. Down 1-2, or 0-2, those numbers crater to 27 and 8, respectively, with strikeout rates that approach 50%. It's difficult to have any patience at the plate when a hitter knows that falling behind in the count spells almost certain doom for him.
So the next big step in his development, and the thing that will most help Castellanos moderate his lows, is developing a better two-strike approach. For a bigger guy, with a long swing, this is a difficult transition, but it's one Castellanos has to make this season. If he's able to learn to shorten his swing, and put the ball in play more often when he's behind, Castellanos will be better able to stay selective early in counts. He'll have a lot less pressure to get something done immediately in an at-bat.
If he can make some progress in this regard, Castellanos will be a lot less vulnerable to pitchers trying to use his aggressiveness against him. His walk rates will probably always be on the low side, but he'll be freer to tap into that power more regularly. To this point, he's had to be aggressive in an at-bat from the very beginning.
In his two seasons, Tigers fans have seen Castellanos in a groove for stretches, and it is an impressive sight. His contact ability and power to all fields continues to provide tantalizing glimpses of a bat that could turn the Tigers' lineup into the best in the game. We know he's capable of doing that when he's hot. But, if he's going to take the next step in his development, that breakout will have to come in whether he can remain productive when he's cold.