Will Detroit Tigers’ Nick Castellanos Warm Up To The Hot Corner?

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It appears Nick Castellanos‘s bat belongs in the major leagues.

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The question is, will his glove be joining him for the ride?

The good news is the third baseman had a promising first full year in a Detroit Tiger uniform, at least with the bat. Awarded the position at the onset of spring training, he held it throughout the year and produced a slash line of .259/.306/.394. He also hit 11 home runs and added 66 RBIs.

Not bad at all, especially considering the tender-aged 22-year-old was seeing major league pitching on an everyday basis for the first time.

Both his batting average (.259) and OPS (.700) were in the “average to slightly below average” category compared to other full – time American League third baseman. As he tallies more at bats it’s expected those numbers will head north, and he’ll eventually reach his projected ceiling of a middle-of-the-order hitter.

At least that’s the plan.

There is one problem though, and it has to do with the piece of leather that dangles from Castellanos’s left wrist.

Which is of course to say (in our politically correct, contemporary manner), that he is “defensively challenged”.

As a defender, Castellanos has had his share of positional drift throughout his baseball career.

He played shortstop throughout his high school years in Florida, when he was bird – dogged by scouts as a top major league prospect. Drafted by the Tigers with the 44th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Castellanos was promptly shifted to third-base as a professional.

During the 2012 minor league season, though, Castellanos became a left fielder.

That switch was precipitated by the acquisition of first baseman Prince Fielder and the subsequent return of Miguel Cabrera to third base. Castellanos continued to learn the left field position in the minors until Fielder was dealt to Texas following the 2013 season, which prompted Cabrera’s return to first.

So despite being a professional since 2010, when he made only a brief appearance in the rookie league, Castellanos has  played only two full seasons as a third sacker –in 2011 at West Michigan, and of course throughout 2014 in Detroit.

The return on that sample?

Well, not so good.

The sabermetric community, for instance, has already drawn and quartered Castellanos for his 2014 performance.

Inarguably, his 2014 “defensive metrics” were abysmal.

First a word of caution about the dark art of “defensive metrics”. There are several measurements included in that category which purport to approximate a defender’s acumen.

Most prominent among them are Range Factor (RF), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). The latter two are are based on complex formulas which attempt to quantify a defender’s abilities in relation to others at his position.

Since defensive scenarios don’t lend themselves as easily to direct measurement as offensive performance, there is necessarily a degree of human subjectivity baked into the formulas. That’s one proviso.

The other caveat is that summaries of defensive performance gain relative statistical validity only over extended periods, with three years most often mentioned as the minimal term. All that being said, according to the matrix of 2014 defensive statistics (both traditional and advanced) Castellanos had a miserable year with the glove.

The following statistics are where Castellanos ranked among the 11 American League third basemen who played regularly in 2014:

Fielding percentage: .950 (10th)

Range Factor: 1.98 (10th)

UZR/ (ave. 150 games): -19.1 (11th)

DRS: -30.0 (11th)

Of course the final factor to be applied by every baseball fan is the “eye test”.

Though I did not see all 165 games played by the Tigers this year, I viewed the majority, which was a sufficient sample to form an opinion. My personal viewpoint is that Castellanos’s defense was well below average but not as crippling as the metrics above suggest.

Is this a highly subjective judgment?

Of course, but defense is the one bastion of the game most resistant to mathematical reduction, and when evaluating performance there is still no substitute for a practiced eye.

The Bottom Line

Nick Castellanos is an integral part of the future of the Detroit Tigers.

He is young, cost-controlled, and long on potential, especially with a bat in his hands.

For the franchise to realize it’s fullest value from Castellanos, though, he must play third base. Legitimate major league third basemen are scarce, and if you find yourself without one, expensive to obtain in the marketplace.

Thus 2015 is a key year for the youngster Castellanos.

Though he’ll never be a Gold Glover at third base, he must progress with the glove. At his age and considering his relative inexperience at the position, it ‘s entirely possible that will be the case and his below-average defense will cease to be an issue.

If he continues to stumble, though, at some point the Tigers will have a decision to make. Either they’ll have to limit his playing time at third-base (via late-game substitution) or return him wholesale to the outfield (to which, by the way, he is not well-suited, either).

So as far as his infield play is concerned, Castellanos’s dilemma can be summed up as follows:

If he doesn’t warm up to the hot corner in 2015, he may find himself left out in the cold.

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