Can Nick Castellanos Finally Break Out for the Detroit Tigers in 2016?
At the midway point of 2015, it was looking like another disappointing season for Nick Castellanos. The young Detroit Tigers third baseman was slashing .243/.287/.372 with just 6 home runs in 328 plate appearances.
Considering his previously lofty expectations and poor defense, those numbers just weren't going to cut it.
The second half, though, was a radically different story. He launched 9 homers in 267 plate appearances on his way to a .269/.322/.478 slash, solidifying himself within the order and providing the Tigers with some much-needed offense following the Yoenis Cespedes trade.
We've been down this street before. A guy busts out with a great second half, prompting optimism the following season. When has drawing conclusions from a limited sample size ever gone wrong?
While this type of skepticism is certainly warranted and necessary, there were elements of Castellanos' game that indicated this surge could be legit. If he is able to sustain some of those same measurements, then 2016 could be the year the long-awaited Castellanos emergence comes to fruition.
Let's take a closer look into the second half of Castellanos' season to see just how jacked we should get about his potential in 2016.
In a batter, you ideally want a guy who will draw walks, avoid strikeouts, and make solid contact when he swings. Although Castellanos is still working on the plate discipline aspect, the well-struck balls are already there.
Back in his 2014 rookie season, Castellanos caught our eye with one of the highest line-drive rates in the league. He finished that year with a 34.0 percent hard-hit rate compared to just a 10.8 percent soft-hit rate. Those numbers are both much better than the league-average third baseman.
Part of Castellanos' early-season struggles last year could be attributed to a dip in both of those categories. His hard-hit rate fell to 30.4 percent with a 12.6 percent soft-hit rate. When you combine that with an above-average strikeout rate, it would make sense that things would be a bit bleak.
Not only did he regain his ball-bashing ways of 2014 in the second half, but he actually exceeded them also. His hard-hit rate spiked to 34.7 percent while his soft-hit rate fell to just 9.8 percent. Among the 156 qualified batters in the second half, only five had lower soft-hit rates than Castellanos. Joey Votto was third, Bryce Harper was fifth, teammate J.D. Martinez was eighth, and that Mike Trout guy was ninth. Not shabby company for a kid in his age-23 season.
Continued Plate Discipline Issues
With that said, having good batted-ball numbers doesn't necessarily translate into success if you can't put the barrel on the ball. Castellanos saw his strikeout rate actually float the wrong way in the second half, increasing to 27.7 percent from 23.8 percent in the first half. Should this put a damper on our optimism?
It's certainly a concern, but I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss Castellanos. As Fangraphs' Eno Sarris detailed in November, Castellanos cut down on his swing rate on pitches outside of the strike zone in the second half. He went from hacking at 38.4 percent of pitches outside the zone to 31.1 percent, just below the league average of 31.3 percent.
This makes Castellanos' increased strikeout rate a bit more confusing. If he's swinging less often at bad pitches, you would assume that would lead to fewer strikeouts rather than more.
In looking at last year's data, that's not an entirely true assumption. Among qualified batters, the correlation coefficient between swing rate on balls outside of the zone and strikeout rate was only -0.03501, meaning it had a negligible negative correlation. However, swing rate on balls outside of the zone and walk rate had a correlation of coefficient of -0.6369, a strong negative correlation. As the chase rate goes down, the walk rate will go up.
This is something we did see with Castellanos in the second half. He jacked his walk rate up to 7.5 percent from 5.8 percent in the first half. This should allow that second-half on-base percentage to be more sustainable, while the hard-hit rate could keep his slugging percentage elevated. Maybe this progress we saw from Castellanos was true and actionable.
Unless Castellanos is able to reduce his strikeouts, his batting average will likely remain mediocre unless he seems some luck on balls in play. However, if you're in a league that defers to on-base percentage or slugging percentage (they are dope, so you should be), this progress from Castellanos is going to bring more value to his stick moving forward.
Castellanos' fantasy stock is understandably low entering 2016. He checks in as the 186th overall player in ESPN's initial top 250 list, making him the 16th-ranked third baseman, two spots behind Pablo Sandoval. Given the disappointment Castellanos has brought so far, that ranking makes sense.
Assuming we don't see a huge jump in perception of him prior to the start of the season, I would absolutely start buying Castellanos at that price. If he keeps producing such a high hard-hit rate and continues to exhibit more patience, that will bolster his numbers across the board. Hitting behind guys like Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and now Justin Upton doesn't hurt, either.
That doesn't mean that Castellanos comes without risk. He could end up reverting to the form he showed in the first half of last year, in which case his offense will sag. If that happens -- given his struggles defensively -- nobody could blame the Tigers if they were to cut down on his time in the lineup. That's a risk for which you have to account.
For right now, the upside is more than you'll find among most other third basemen that late in the draft. Castellanos is entering his age-24 season, and his peripheral stats showed improvement throughout the year last year. That's enough to justify a bit of a reach in order to bring his potential onto your roster.
It's entirely possible that this could all just be setting up for another disappointing season for Castellanos. Based on what we saw the second half of last year, though, listing him as a potential breakout candidate is not far fetched at all. He's a young guy showing signs of progress, and for the price at which you can get him, that's good enough for me.