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Nick Castellanos' hot start should come as no surprise

The Tigers' third baseman has been producing at the plate since last summer.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone’s favorite breakout candidate has had the perfect start to the year. The Detroit Tigers faithful have long waited for Nick Castellanos to match the hype he received when rising through the farm system, and many pegged 2016 as the season for him to finally prove his worth.

But even the most optimistic believers did not suggest a start like this. Through 30 games, Castellanos has a .380 batting average (which leads the American League), a .397 on-base percentage, and is slugging .620 with six home runs and 26 RBI, both of which lead the team.

At first glance, Castellanos’ 2016 numbers are a huge anomaly from previous seasons. He is currently second in the AL with a 183 wRC+, and is posting numbers far above his totals from his first two years. He also is enjoying a .455 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is significantly higher than his career average, while he is walking even less than before. It would be easy to write this off as early season luck and unsustainable good fortune given how different these numbers look from Castellanos’ past figures.

Season BB% SO% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2014 6.2 24.2 .326 .259 .306 .394 94
2015 6.6 25.5 .332 .255 .303 .419 94
2016 4.3 24.1 .455 .380 .397 .620 183

However, the root of this hot streak began almost 11 months ago.

Dates BB% SO% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
6/23/15 - 10/4/15 6.8 26.2 .359 .283 .329 .487 121
6/23/15 - 5/10/16 6.1 25.7 .384 .308 .346 .521 137

While the start of his sophomore season was rough for Castellanos, he had a great second half of 2015. Take a look at his stat line from June 23 until the end of the season. Castellanos hit .283/.329/.487 with 121 wRC+, numbers that look much more like his 2016 start than his 2014 numbers. Considering these numbers, his electric start should have been a little less surprising and a little more expected. Though 2016 has been even greater than how he ended 2015, the foundation for this season stems from how he ended the last.

Improving contact

The biggest change Castellanos made during the latter half of 2015 was his ability to produce better contact. During the second part of the season, he increased his hard hit contact rate from 29.7 percent to 35.1 percent, which helped raise his line drive rate from 20 percent to 25.9 percent. Unsurprisingly, this helped raise his batting average and BABIP by a substantial margin.

Like most right-handed batters, pitchers typically attack Castellanos down and away. Through his first one and a half seasons, he hit just .136 against pitches near the lower-outside corner of the plate and hit line drives on just 22.4 percent of the balls he put in play from this area. However, during the latter half of 2015, he raised this batting average to .224 and line drive rate to 29.4 percent. These trends have continued in 2016 and have helped him become a much more complete hitter.

Dates Four-seam Sinker Changeup Slider
4/6/15 - 6/22/15 .177 .290 .250 .154
6/23/15 - 10/4/15 .341 .353 .321 .250
4/5/16 - 5/9/16 .269 .625 .250 .313

Interestingly, though Castellanos has shown an improvement in being able to cover more of the plate, he has stayed pretty steady in terms of where he hits the ball. There is no real change in his pull rate, and his spray charts from the first and second halves of 2015 look pretty similar. Additionally, though his on-base percentage has enjoyed a nice increase, he actually is walking less than before and is recording swings-and-misses at about the same rate. Thus, it seems like his ability to improve his contact is the driving force behind his improvement.

Sustainability

Castellanos is going to come back down to earth at some point in 2016, and it may happen soon. His .455 BABIP and 15.8 percent home run to fly ball rate are way above his career norms, and he shows no signs of reducing his strikeouts. But earth for Castellanos should look more like the end of 2015 than the previous season and a half. His increased hard contact rate and line drive percentage will continue to help his batting average, and a steady rise in his fly ball rate suggests more homers are to come.

While he is a long-shot to end the season with the batting title, do not be surprised to see Castellanos' final 2016 line look unlike the final lines from the years before. Though his defense and base running are still up for debate, it is time to take his improvements at the plate quite seriously. Castellanos made the leap last June and it has continued into this season; there is no telling how high he may rise.