By: Will Burchfield
It’s been a down year at the plate for Nicholas Castellanos — right?
Just look at that average: .248. Check out that OPS: .755. Irredeemable numbers — right?
“If I graded myself, how would I grade it? A ‘D,'” Castellanos said.
Asked why, he replied, “Because I know that I’m a lot better than what I’ve put up so far.”
In some ways, that’s true. Castellanos has never posted an average this low in his four-year career. His OPS is down about 75 points from last season.
In other ways, it couldn’t be less true. Castellanos is on pace to set career highs in both home runs and RBI, by a wide margin in both categories. His BB/K ratio is at an all-time best. Oh, and he leads the American League in triples.
Told of Castellanos’ harsh self-assessment, Brad Ausmus said, “I wouldn’t characterize it that way at all.”
“I think he’s trying to be humble when he says ‘D.’ Or maybe ‘D’ stands for dandy. Maybe it means he expects more out of himself,” said Ausmus.
There’s no doubt Castellanos is a highly-confident hitter. It’s evident in the way he swaggers to the plate. With high confidence comes high expectations, and in his own mind, Castellanos hasn’t met them.
Still, he has 18 home runs and 71 RBI through 121 games. He’s already matched his career best in the former category and he’s just two shy in the latter. A 25-home run, 90-RBI season is very much on the table.
“That’s pretty darn good as a third baseman,” said Ausmus.
Plus, Castellanos’ numbers should be even better. He ranks among baseball’s top 10 in both hard-contact rate and line-drive rate, only he’s been let down by a bunch of poor luck.
“The average is a little bit misleading just because of how well he hit the ball, especially early in the season,” Ausmus said.
It’s been a common defense of Castellanos this year. At this point it almost feels tired, an excuse more than an explanation. But the numbers don’t lie.
Of the top-10 hitters in hard-contact rate, six made this year’s All-Star Game. Of the four who didn’t, two of them — Joey Gallo and Khris Davis — rank among the top four in the A.L. in home runs. Meanwhile, Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera have nothing to show for it.
“It’s just been a weird season for me, on the field and off the field,” Castellanos said. “But you grind and you do the best you can every day.”
(It’s worth noting that Cabrera has been coping with his own off-the-field issues this season.)
Castellanos, 25, said he’s dealt with “bits and pieces” of what’s troubled him this year at various points in the past. But never to this degree.
Asked if those issues affect a player’s performance on the field, he turned toward his locker and said quietly, “Yeah, of course. 100 percent.”
Offensively, Castellanos has much to improve. While he’s increased his walks this season, he still strikes out too much. He can be lackadaisical on the base paths, and simply lazy out of the box. He’s prone to streakiness.
Over the first two months this season, he hit .209. From June halfway through July, he hit .319. Since then, .228. That’s a problem, one that Castellanos is aware of.
Asked where he’d like to see improvement, Castellanos shrugged off his average and said, “I would would just say my consistency.”
And that, he agreed, would take care of the numbers — average and otherwise — on it’s own.
For a young player with considerable offensive ability, Castellanos is an unlikely source of derision for Tigers’ fans. His defense, which is poor and not getting better, is largely to blame. The way he carries himself probably doesn’t help.
This is literal as much as figurative. Castellanos likes to strut. He enjoys holding his pose after striking a line drive and folding his arms after sliding into third with a triple. There’s nothing necessarily wrong about this, but Castellanos’ on-field manner suggests a much more impressive resume than he owns.
It’s as if, by feather-flaunting, he’s exercising a right he hasn’t earned. That grates on fans, baseball fans in particular.
Castellanos also has a tendency to be curt with the media. He always owns up to his mistakes — in fact, he’s most thoughtful when he knows he’s done wrong — but he doesn’t much enjoy interviews and isn’t bashful about letting it be known. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but in quotes and on camera Castellanos can come across as aloof.
His fan-approval rating seems to suffer as a result.
Castellanos is a key part of the Tigers’ future. He’s under team control through 2019 and has the bat to be a linchpin in the lineup for years to come. A move to right field or first base seems inevitable, especially with third baseman Jeimer Candelario waiting in the wings, but the Tigers are no doubt better with Castellanos in the picture.
Castellanos considers his season at the plate a borderline failure. Many fans would probably be quick to agree. And yet, for all his struggles and poor luck, he’s provided 1.8 offensive-WAR. Find a way to lessen his drag defensively, and his appeal becomes obvious.
By that point, everything else may be forgiven.