2016 Could Be Nick Castellanos’s Year

Tiger fans, let me ask you this. Game on the line, would you want Player X or Player Y up to bat?

Player X: .255/.303/.419 batting line, 98 OPS+, 54 extra base hits
Player Y: .264/.297/.387 batting line, 96 OPS+, 30 extra base hits

You’d probably want player X. That’s the smart choice anyway. Player X was hated on after his 2015, and Player Y was loved. X is Nick Castellanos and Y is James McCann.

Many people are worried about Nick Castellanos heading into 2016, but I want him to hit sixth in the order. I think he’s got a great swing and can hit the ball hard and drive it to all fields; he’s got power that’s going to develop. He should be an all-around good player very soon.

Castellanos has had a weird history, he had an average rookie season where he flashed what he could do at times and probably got a bit unlucky. He was expecting to progress in 2015, but he did not. In fact, Castellanos hit under .250 in every month until June. After the All-Star Break and especially in August and September, Castellanos really hit well. Nine of his 15 homers came after the All-Star Break and literally everything came together for Castellanos. When looking on Baseball Reference I noticed a few things and I used FanGraphs and my Baseball Forecaster to do a little research too, and this is what I found.

I watched Castellanos play every day in 2015, which is usually an advantage but it also makes you feel like you’re a know-it-all and you might miss certain details. I knew Castellanos looked like he could barely hit in the first half and tattooed the ball in the second half, but the one thing that stood out to me was how he tripled his double plays grounded into from 2014 to 2015. Now Castellanos isn’t the fastest guy (he could threaten ten triples next year but that’s in large part to a swing that fits Comerica Park very nicely), but there’s no way he got slower from 2014 to 2015 enough to go from seven GIDP to 21 GIDP. So I concluded he must be hitting more grounders, which is bad news for Nick because he did hit line drives at a high rate and grounders will probably mean more weak contact for him.

I was devastated to go to FanGraphs and find his line drive rate dropped slightly over 5 percent and his grounder percentage went up slightly. I did some more research though, since I knew right after the All-Star break he started to get hot, I just looked at the splits. His ground ball rate went down 6 percent in the second half and his line drive rate returned to nearly what it was his rookie season. He also had switched 3 percent of his weak contact into 3 percent of his hard contact rate in the second half. In short, Castellanos returned to his rookie form, but he actually had the results and growth to show for it.

Usually sabermetricians will tell you half splits are terrible to define a player, and in most cases that makes sense. The only two instances where it doesn’t is when a player is so psychologically convinced of something (think about any time you’ve ever went in a slump if you play, or made an embarrassing mistake and felt pressure), or there’s a legitimate excuse. I think the latter could be true here.

The Tigers have an excellent hitting coach in Wally Joyner, one of the guys who helped J.D. Martinez unleash his potential through adjustments made. Right around the start of the second half Castellanos’s potential was on full display. Eno Sarris has shown us in his post that Castellanos stopped swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. Oddly enough, Castellanos’s strikeout rate slightly increased in the second half.

What this does show though is that he became better at waiting on a pitch that he can use his good hitting mechanics to drive. He will make less outs by swinging at bad pitches and hitting them on the ground or popping them up. In fact, he didn’t hit an infield fly ball in the second half. The adjustments on waiting for the right pitch may be exactly what Nick Castellanos needs to go from average to a guy who can help the Tigers offense greatly.

All of these small factors add up to the adjustment, or adjustments Castellanos made in the second half. The biggest thing is what Eno Sarris pointed out, but small tweaks can help a guy too and Castellanos could’ve made those.

To quote Bull Durham, “Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. Twenty five hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week — just one — a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.” Now that’s not to say Castellanos will get more lucky in 2016, but to show you that all he has to do is improve by 25 hits, which looks like a real possibility.

Some other things on Castellanos. I saw two things I really liked in the second half not mentioned above. First, he reached his power potential in July and August, hitting 11 home runs. In September, maybe he was physically worn down, but he had no homers.

With the big adjustment of waiting for the right pitch, he hit more liners and solid fly balls. On the scouting side I’ve mentioned Nick’s picturesque swing that a manager dreams of. That could lead to major homers or extra base hits. In fact, his Linear Weighted power index (Baseball Forecaster statistic) was 118 last year (100 is league average in this statistic), which isn’t elite but it is very good. Castellanos might not be an elite power hitter but 40 doubles, 25 homers, and 10 triples isn’t crazy if he reaches his potential. Also, Castellanos’s walk rate rose in 2015 after the adjustments.

Castellanos will never be a great defender, although Baseball Prospectus had him above average last year, at a 2.1 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average). His hitting will be more than enough to carry him if his defense is still mediocre.

Also, Castellanos started hitting lefties really well last season and righties not as well. He has never hit righties that poorly in his career, so it looks to just be an outlier year, nothing to worry about yet. His skill for hitting lefties well has a bit more merit to it, so we’ll have to see if he can return to his norm against righties and maybe keep the lefty mashing skills.

All in all, Nick Castellanos should be an above average player in 2016, and continue to improve. He’s not Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, or Carlos Correa who were born ready to be stars in the majors. He’s someone who will need time to grow and it looks as if his breakout is right around the corner. I think 2016 is a great year to target him in fantasy, or peg him for big things if you’re a Tiger’s fan.

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