The Detroit Tigers’ Nick Castellanos, Austin Jackson, and Spring Training Success


Mar 18, 2014; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos (9) bats against the New York Mets in spring training action at Tradition Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The headlines coming out of Lakeland the last couple of weeks have been heavy with bad news. This guy gets hurts. That guy doesn’t want to sign an extension. And what is the GM thinking with that trade. Has he lost his marbles?

It hasn’t all been bad news, however. As others have written, the Tigers do have a few reasons to smile days before the start of the regular season.

I’d like to focus on two of those reasons. More specifically I want to draw attention to an article that appeared in ESPN’s latest online venture: FiveThirtyEight.

If you’re a political junkie you will recognize the above. Started by Michigan native Nate Silver a few years ago to statistically track the 2008 presidential election, FiveThirtyEight has migrated, after a few years at the New York Times, to ESPN and will provide statistical analysis on a range of subjects, including, of course, sports.

What really caught my eye was an article from last weekend entitled “When Spring Training Matters.” If you’ve been a fan of baseball even for just a few years you know that Spring Training results are usually incredibly misleading. Small sample sizes, false game conditions, and so on have trained fans to ignore what happens in the spring. As it turns out, however, Spring Training results at the extreme, either really good or really bad, might just mean something going forward. The article cites a few trustworthy studies that have shown that extreme positive performance in spring suggests that a particular player, using age and past performance as a baseline, could have a better year than expected. Or worse, if the performance is at the negative extreme. As the article clarifies, the data doesn’t indicate that player X is definitely poised for a great year. It just suggests that there is a statistically significant, albeit small, effect on expected performance.

Mar 4, 2014; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson (14) hits a two-run home run during the fourth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

So, how does this relate to the Tigers? Well, the player whose preseason projection is likely to be most positively effected by his Spring Training performance is Nick Castellanos. Seventh on the good list is Austin Jackson. Keeping with the positive vibe theme, the Tigers have no one on the top ten negative list.

Castellanos has certainly had an encouraging spring, as his 373/389/627 slash line shows. The Tigers’ new third baseman had a preseason wOBA (weighted on base average, a handy metric for measuring overall offensive production) projection of .337, which is at the high end of average. Running his spring training numbers through the FiveThirtyEight formula suggests that Castellanos’s could actually be on pace to post a solid above average wOBA (.350). That would be a welcome relief for the Tigers and probably make him a more valuable player in 2014 than the man he is essentially replacing, Prince Fielder, was in 2013.  Castellanos’ defense is still a work in progress. And during his minor league career, he usually suffered through a month where his production completely cratered. So it will likely not be smooth ride for him. Castellanos just needs to limit the damage from the potholes he’ll inevitably encounter.

The other Tiger on the good list is Austin Jackson, who is also raking this spring at 387/457/761. His revised preseason projection, based on his fabulous Spring Training performance, comes in at .360, which edges him closer to the wOBA range considered great.

An Austin Jackson hitting at an elevated level and a Nick Castellanos hitting even better than expected would be a real boon for an offense trying to replace three of its top five offensive performers from the year before. And it would help immensely in keeping the Central Division title in Detroit for a fourth straight year.