Detroit Tigers Castellanos Progressing Slowly At Third


Statistically speaking, last year Detroit Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos was the worst defensive third baseman in baseball.

How does he rate this year?

The twenty-three-year-old has been the Tiger third sacker since spring training of last year. Originally drafted with the 44th overall pick in the 2010 MLB draft, Castellanos signed an eleventh hour, over-slot $3.45 million contract to become a Tiger.

Although he played shortstop in high school in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the Tigers viewed him as a third baseman and he started his minor league career in that capacity.

But things changed in 2012, after the Tigers signed free agent first baseman Prince Fielder to a colossal nine-year contract. The chain reaction that followed resulted in Miguel Cabrera moving from first to third, blocking Castellanos at that position. He was eventually handed an outfielder’s glove at AA Erie and under watchful eyes, worked on becoming a left fielder.

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He remained an outfielder (albeit a mediocre one) until Fielder was unloaded to the Texas Rangers in November, 2013. At that point Cabrera was repatriated to first base and Castellanos became the new Tiger third baseman.

To his credit, Castellanos has since worked assiduously to master his craft.

He’s focused on the highly specialized skills intrinsic to major league third basemen–reaction time, range, foot work, positioning, throwing accuracy, and reading hitters, among others. Along the way he’s had the benefit of some of the finest instructors in the business, namely defensive coordinator Matt Martin and infield coach extraordinaire Omar Vizquel.

Though primarily recognized as one of the best defensive shortstops ever, it is less well-known Vizquel also played a significant number of games at third base, particularly late in his lengthy career.

Nor should it be forgotten that this year Castellanos is playing alongside the best defensive shortstop in the game in Jose Iglesias, and has no doubt received the benefit of his counsel (Iglesias has also played third at the major league level).

So how is Castellanos doing at the hot corner?

First, a bit of good news.

Castellanos’s  “fielding percentage”, which simply measures the percentage of error-free handles versus total chances, stands at .969, fourth among regular American League third basemen. He’s committed six  errors in 193 chances this year, versus 15 errors in 302 chances last year, when his FP was .950.

Sabermetricians, though, employ more sophisticated formulas to assess a defender’s acuity, mostly dismissing the traditional fielding percentage as a blunt instrument. Two of these newer measurements are known as “defensive runs saved” (DRS) and “ultimate zone rating” (UZR).

The definition of DRS is “how many runs a player saved or hurt his team in the field compared to the average player”.

UZR is a related measurement and extrapolates DRS data, allowing players to be ranked along a continuum. Any value of +15 or higher is deemed to be Gold Glove caliber defense, 0 is average, while -15 or lower is considered miserable.  To smooth out the data, UZR is frequently expressed across a sample of 150 games or “UZR/150”.

In 2014 Castellanos had -30 DRS and a UZR/150 score of -19.1, ranking dead last and second-to-last among all regular MLB third basemen.

So how does he rank this year in view of these advanced statistics?

Well, compared to last year the numbers are better, but he still ranks near the bottom of AL third basemen.

In the DRS department, for instance, Castellanos stands at -8, ahead of only Boston’s Pablo Sandoval (-11). Baltimore’s Manny Machado leads the pack at +11.

Likewise with UZR/150, at -10.4 Castellanos leads only Oakland’s Brett Lawrie (-10.5) and Sandoval (-25.6). Toronto’s Josh Donaldson is at the forefront with a +15.1 score.

Alongside this assortment of both traditional and advanced statistics stands the most telling crucible of all–the “eye test”.

Watching Castellanos perform throughout the season, an informed observer can detect tendencies and nuances no numerical system could ever divine.

So how does Castellanos appear in real time to the naked eye?

Unfortunately, it’s obvious he does not carry himself like a major league third baseman.

Although he’s improved on balls hit to his right (i.e., down the line), overall he comes up wanting in the one area critical to playing the hot corner–reaction time. Simply put, Castellanos’s  reactions are not fast enough to play the position adequately.

Unfortunately for him and the Tigers, it’s not a skill you can learn. You either have it or you don’t.

This defect is evident on sundry grounders he misplays or doesn’t reach, but is most noticeable on well-hit line drives. In the past two years a stunning number of liners hit directly at him have either completely eluded him or clanked off or through his glove.

On some of these he’s been charged an error and other times not, but the fact remains these were chances virtually any other major league third baseman would have caught.

A related shortcoming in his game is that Castellanos rarely gets to balls he’s not expected to reach. This is a convoluted way of saying he doesn’t make great plays, which can be validated by both advanced statistics and direct observation.

Again, for comparison purposes, most third basemen (at least occasionally) make great plays. With Castellanos, they are conspicuous by their absence.

The Bottom Line

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The “eye test” confirms what most statistical measures suggest–Nick Castellanos is at best a marginal major league third baseman.

But he has four offsetting factors working in his favor.

1. He is 23 years old and should get better with the glove.

Because he lacks the requisite “quick twitch” response, it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever play third base at even an average major league level. But he has time on his side, and with experience might make enough incremental improvement to remain at the position in the longer term.

2. He is cost-controlled through 2019.

In this era of spiraling team payrolls, it’s imperative to maintain a bevy of players under team control for extended periods. Castellanos is such a player, as he will not qualify for free agency until 2020.

3. He plays a position that suffers from a talent shortage.

Major league third basemen are a thin commodity. The unique complement of offensive and defensive demands of the position has left qualified third basemen in short supply. A survey of the Tigers’ minor league system reinforces the point. There are no third basemen even remotely ready to play at the major league level (with the possible exception of current Tiger Jefry Marte, who also has defensive liabilities).

4. He has significant upside offensive potential.

Though Castellanos slashed only .259/.306/.394 last year, he’s projected by many to eventually become a middle-of-the-order hitter. The Tigers have necessarily been patient with the second-year player, who got off to a slow start this year and was hitting as low as .225  in late June. July has been a different story, however, as he’s slashed a robust .292/.356/.523. The Tigers obviously hope that’s more representative of what the future holds for Castellanos.

So plugging all of these considerations into the equation, the Tigers have made a classic compromise–they’ll tolerate Castellanos’s porous defense with the hope his bat more than compensates.

It’s a pact with the devil as old as the game itself.

Let’s hope they don’t get nicked.

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