One of the bright spots in a 2016 Detroit Tigers season that was frustratingly mediocre on several fronts was the emergence of third baseman Nick Castellanos as a legitimate offensive threat.
Anyone who was paying attention in the second half of 2015 could see that Castellanos was on an upward trend. After a sub-par first half, he heated up a bit after the All-Star break, putting up a .269 batting average and an .800 OPS. He did more than pick up where he left off when the 2016 campaign got underway. After a hot first half, Castellanos missed some time in the latter part of the season due to injury, and ended his campaign with a slash line of .285/.331/.496 and a career high 18 home runs.
I’m interested in some of the reasons why he may have found more success in 2016. One interesting nugget I stumbled upon was his performance in two-strike counts. Coming out of the season, manager Brad Ausmus said he would like to see the team strike out less often, and it seems Castellanos might be on board with that sentiment (in two-strike counts, at least). He saw a pretty substantial improvement in two-strike counts in 2016, and it’s one reason why he had such a good year.
Through his first two full seasons, Castellanos sported .160 and .170 batting averages in two-strike counts. He was showing moderate improvement in that category, but 2016 saw the young corner infielder improve by close to 40 points. His .206 average in two-strike counts was a bigger leap than one might expect.
A .206 batting average doesn’t sound like anything to get fired up about, but a batter with two strikes against him is about as disadvantaged as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. In an era that is seeing offense decline in two-strike counts, the average player managed a lowly .176 average, 10 points lower than a decade ago when we seem to have reached peak two-strike hittiness, (or hittitude or some other made-up variation on the word hit).
In this context, Castellanos’ .206 average is a pretty strong number. Add the cherry on top that is a wRC+ of 53 (league average in two-strike counts was a 43 wRC+), which is double the number he posted in 2015, and it’s safe to say Nick was doing good work.
So, what did Castellanos do to improve this area of his game? My best guess is that he adjusted, made good contact when he connected, and got a little lucky.
In the three years Nick has been playing with the big club, it looks like pitchers have been pretty consistent in what they offer up when they have two strikes against him. He has seen the same mix of pitch types, breaking down to approximately 50 percent fastballs, 15 percent off-speed pitches, and a touch over 30 percent breaking balls. These stats aren’t quite as detailed as I’d like — he saw a few more fastballs in two-strike counts in 2016, but the percentages are still close — but they are a decent indicator that pitchers have remained generally consistent in their approach. Knowing roughly what the pitching side of the equation is, we can take a look at Nick’s approach to see if he has adjusted.
Nick’s success rate is a bit of a mixed bag. He has shown some level of proficiency in hitting the four-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, and the changeup, but his swing-and-miss rates actually increased against those pitches last season in two-strike counts.
His overall numbers have been a little all over the place, but he fared much better against fastballs and breaking balls, pitches he saw over 85 percent of the time in two-strike counts last year.
In addition to the adjustments against breaking pitches, the kind of contact he made also improved. His hard hit ball percentage rose above 30 percent for the first time in his career, and was up almost five percentage points over his average from his previous two years.
He also showed a tremendous ability to barrel up balls he put in play. His fly ball rate was an above-average 43 percent, while his infield fly ball rate was a minuscule 1.8 percent. If he hit in the air, there was a good chance he hit it pretty hard.
Numbers like that don’t come about without a certain amount of luck. We should talk about this, because Castellanos was pretty lucky. With a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .365, it’s a given that he had some balls find holes here and there. When you’re working with roughly 240 at-bats, it wouldn’t take too many of those hits getting turned into outs to bring him back down to league average.
Castellanos’ improvement in two-strike counts is just one small part of a variety of different situational improvements that helped him become a better hitter. He adjusted positively against the pitches he saw the most of, and hit them harder than he has in previous seasons. Tack on some lucky drops here and there, and you’re looking at a guy who seems to be learning and improving. Pitchers may adjust to how they approach him, and his luck is probably going to regress back to something closer to league average. It’s going to be up to Castellanos to learn and to re-adjust in response.