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Five hit night may be a slump-buster for Nicholas Castellanos

The Tigers right fielder has been ice cold since the All-Star break, but it’s all part of who he is at the plate

Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Monday night’s five-hit performance against the Chicago White Sox from Nicholas Castellanos, was a sight for sore eyes. An already feeble offensive unit has completely bottomed out with the Tigers’ right fielder lost at the plate over the past month. Castellanos posted a decent series with four hits, including a home run, against the Los Angeles Angels last week and then struggled a bit with Minnesota Twins pitching over the weekend. He’s not out of the woods just yet, but he does look to be coming out of his funk.

The more obvious causes of Castellanos’ recent malaise aren’t terribly hard to locate. Since the All-Star break, his hard hit rate has fallen, while his whiff rates, particularly against secondary pitches, have risen. More weak contact and more strikeouts aren’t a recipe for success. Anyone watching in recent weeks has seen him swinging over changeups and flailing at breaking balls, knocking routine grounders and lazy fly balls to the opposing defense. After a monster first half, his wRC+ now stands at 123, with a wOBA of .355, all right back in line with his production over the past few seasons.

While it’s frustrating, there is also every reason to believe Castellanos will get back on track before long. These are the same issues that have plagued him at times in the past, and he’s always figured it out in time. The 26-year-old Castellanos just has a volatile profile as a hitter, which isn’t unusual, and it isn’t likely to change at this point in his career. A five-hit night, and a little more AL Central pitching, may spell the end of a rough stretch for him.

We’ll tell the story with two graphs.

Obviously the whiff rates heading in the wrong direction is a problem. But overall, Castellanos has already gotten a little spike in whiffs on breaking balls under control. It’s the offspeed stuff that has really been driving him crazy.

He’s already a hitter who swings a lot. This season, Castellanos has offered at 55.4 percent of total pitches, compared to a league average swing rate of 46.5 percent. That’s not unusual for him, however. Nor is an extremely aggressive approach against offspeed pitches. But lately, he just hasn’t been seeing the ball well, offering at an even higher rate of offspeed stuff while whiffing much more often.

This is a particular problem for Castellanos, because he’s actually made a lot of hay out of offspeed pitches this season. Per Statcast, he has a superb .426 wOBA against the soft stuff in 2018. In June, he laid off those pitches especially well, and everything seemed to drop in for him when he didn’t, helping to power a huge stretch for him. That follows the trend the fueled his breakout from the second half of the 2016 season onward. You can trace one of his key developmental step as a big-leaguer through his fortunes against offspeed offerings.

Castellanos has also put the ball on the ground much more often in the second half, and that’s just not where he makes his money. A groundball rate of 44.6, compared to 33.1 percent before the All-Star break, has been another key factor in tanking his production. Castellanos has a whopping .714 wOBA on line drives in 2018. On flyballs it’s still an outstanding .436 wOBA. That’s major production. On groundballs? A disastrous .220 wOBA. He’s not going to find success on the ground, so Monday night’s five-for-five game, featuring mainly liners and flyball (including his second home run in a week’s time) is a sign that things may be turning around for him.

Castellanos’ profile as a hitter has remained essentially the same throughout his nearly five seasons in the major leagues. His walk rate has been slightly below average, sitting between six and seven percent in every season. His strikeout rates have consistently been solid for the times, sitting between 21.4 percent in 2017, and 25.5 percent in 2015. He rarely pops up, and that helps ensure he doesn’t make as many easy outs on balls in play as other hitters. Castellanos gets on base by hitting a lot of line drives and spraying hard contact around the ballpark. The burgeoning power over the past few seasons turned him into a valuable hitter, but he’s still a long way from a dominant one. Walks and overall plate discipline aren’t really a big part of his game. As a result, he’ll always be especially streaky. But we probably have a good bead on who he is as a hitter, and what to expect in the years to come.

At times, he’ll hit like crazy and flash good power. But the slumps will come. And they will probably rise and fall on his success in recognizing and driving pitcher’s offspeed pitches.

Castellanos is bound for free agency after the 2019 season. As he mashed his way through the first half this year, he appeared to be on a way to a breakout. The huge numbers he put up were driven by batted ball luck to a substantial degree, but Castellanos is the type of hitter who will go on tears like that. The problem is that there’s always a comedown, and the question was how far back to Earth he’d fall when the ball stopped dropping for him. The fact that he fell so far that his overall season numbers are right back to the level of his good, but unspectacular, production since 2016, may provide one last opportunity, should the Tigers decide that trying to extend him through his prime is worth it.

The two parties didn’t appear to get to the point of preliminary talks last offseason, despite rumored interest from both the Tigers, and Castellanos himself, who has openly professed his desire to remain a Tiger for the long haul. Probably the organization needed to start extension talks when he hit arbitration for the first time to really get him under market rate. Typically players don’t sign extensions with the lure of free agency only a year away. Particularly in the rare event that such a player is hitting free agency at just 27 years of age, as Castellanos will next year.

However, Castellanos’ slump, and his ongoing defensive struggles, have resulted in a weak market for his services at two consecutive trade deadlines. He’s not a player in demand, and the Tigers may also have to consider teaching him first base this offseason to give him the defensive versatility to stay in the lineup long-term. Even a strong finish with the bat over the next seven weeks isn’t going to mean a lot to his total value as a player. So if the Tigers decide they want him for the long haul, he’s unlikely to be out of their reach whether they work out an extension this offseason or continue their wait-and-see policy next year.