Third baseman Nick Castellanos has had himself quite a year. It was just last June when Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus actually had to sit Castellanos down for a few games after a brutal start to the 2015 season. At that point, a demotion to the minor leagues looked pretty likely for the young third baseman. Instead, it marked the beginning of his breakout.
Over the past calendar year, Castellanos has posted a 122 wRC+ in 627 plate appearances. He ranks sixth overall among third basemen in that time frame. Obviously, the Tigers need young talent to step up to remain relevant as a postseason threat. Castellanos has done his part. On a team that hasn't really hit big on a first round pick since Justin Verlander, Castellanos appears to be on his way to a fine career.
He came out swinging a very hot bat in 2016. In April and May, he was absolutely crushing the baseball. Now nearing the season's halfway point, Castellanos is only one home run from equaling the 15 he hit in 2015. His defense and baserunning continue to limit his overall worth, but he's been a valuable weapon in a Tigers' offense that has often relied on one or two hot bats at a time. And all signs point toward a player who is still has more to offer.
Castellanos finally cooled off toward the end of May. But it's a great sign that when he finally did slow down, he didn't come unglued either. His strikeout and walk rates have weakened, but not wildly so. He's put the ball on the ground more, hurting his power numbers, but has otherwise continued to produce at the plate.
This is a far cry from the wildly erratic numbers Castellanos put up in his first year and a half in league. He occasionally showed flashes of promise, but his bad stretches lasted months, and were truly bad. So far in 2016, the worst that can said of Castellanos as a hitter is that he's been pretty average in June.
What's interesting, and quite encouraging, is that Castellanos is still making a lot of hard contact. He actually turned around fastballs and offspeed pitches with increasing authority even as his numbers were falling in June. He still has four home runs for the month, though the extra base hits have been more scarce. A power hitter needs to put the ball in the air to cash in, and lately Nick has had more trouble doing that.
His issues have mainly revolved around the breaking ball. While his numbers haven't gone crooked, he's whiffed a little more often and made weaker contact over the past month. Particularly against left-handers, Castellanos has been beating both fastballs and breaking pitches into the ground, but he's still hitting the fastballs hard, and rarely whiffs on them. As a result, he's starting to get more breaking balls early in counts.
Basically the approach to Castellanos has edged toward pitching him inside more, particularly with the fastball. When pitchers can prevent him from extending his arms, it saps his power to a degree, and results in his rolling over more ground balls to the pull field. It can also make breaking balls on the outer edge look more tempting than they should. Unlike a typical pull hitter, Castellanos default mode isn't to turn on inside pitches.
However, it takes a good fastball and good control to consistently get a hitter like Castellanos out that way. It isn't something most pitchers can do effectively, and Castellanos will eventually start making pitchers pay for coming inside if it continues. He's done it before.
In the meantime, Castellanos is still contributing some power, tallying a triple and a two-run shot to centerfield Tuesday night against the Miami Marlins, for example. And despite his struggles with lefties, he has a whopping .280 isolated power against them on the year. When he does connect, he's doing serious damage. It was always highly unlikely that Castellanos was going to crush 40 home runs and hit .350 this season, but so far he's come down to Earth very gently.
In addition, he's obviously worked hard on his defense and has been a passable third baseman for two years now. His baserunning has trended better in 2016. Between those improvements and his development as a power hitter, Castellanos is holding his own. He's also already pretty well-seasoned for a guy who just turned 24 years old. The Tigers have to be very pleased with what they've seen from him over the past year. They're also in a spot where they've got to hope there's more to come in the immediate future.
J.D. Martinez's injury has put a crimp in the Tigers' offense. With a month left to build some momentum headed into the trade deadline, the Tigers are going to have overcome the loss of Martinez if they're going to start making a case from themselves as a serious contender. Justin Upton has finally picked up the pace in June. If Castellanos can shake off his modest funk and pick up the pace again, the offense should continue to thrive. That, and the better relief work we've seen in recent weeks, could go a long way toward helping the team close the gap between them and the streaking Cleveland Indians.
Castellanos didn't have the optimal path to the major leagues. Brought up too soon, and ill-prepared for the position the Tigers wanted him to play, it's no surprise that he took some time to find his footing. Now that he has, the Tigers look like they've got one of the better hitters at the position for many seasons to come. As a result they have an offense that looks much more resilient than the 2015 model. A lot can happen in a year.